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.

mechanical-musical-marvels

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.

Want a better holiday?

Time away from work is great, but is a break from your phone even better?

Leave your phone at home this holiday and you’ll feel better (after you feel worse)
Travellers at this stage were forced to travel in an old-fashion manner, navigating using a printed map, talking to strangers, and reading printed bus timetables. Two of our participants even gave up at this stage as they found the emotional experience unbearable.

Those that stuck it out were glad they did.

Our participants overcame the initial emotions and then started to enjoy the digital-free experience. They found themselves more immersed in the destination, created more valuable moments with their travel companions, and had many more memorable and authentic encounters with locals.

They felt free, happy, excited, and relieved. One participant said: “I feel quite good that I made it this far without technology. I feel quite liberated.” Without the disruptions of digital technologies, they were fully engaged with their holiday experience, demonstrating that a digital-free holiday can contribute to wellbeing.

But if it’s a relaxing holiday you’re after, why not take a trip to Battle Creek Sanitarium, John Kellogg’s medical spa and birthplace of the corn flake?

Dr. John Kellogg invented cereal. Some of his other wellness ideas were much weirder
Kellogg’s interest in the therapeutic powers of electricity didn’t end with light baths. With a device he cobbled together from telephone parts, he began to administer mild doses of electrical current directly to his patients’ skin. Kellogg claimed these “sinusoidal current” treatments were painless and wrote that he’d tested them in “many thousands of therapeutic applications.” While electrical stimulation is used to this day for certain medical purposes, the ever-optimistic Kellogg maintained that it could treat lead poisoning, tuberculosis, obesity and, when applied directly to the patient’s eyeballs, a variety of vision disorders.

Struggling with GDPR, or just ignoring it?

It’s been over a year now, but are we all still feeling our way with GDPR?

PwC’s data practices rejected in GDPR rebuke
With enforcement of the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) still in its infancy, companies may be floating trial balloons to see which arguments resonate with authorities. PriceWaterhouseCoopers (PwC) recently tested the air currents in Greece, but was shot down by the Hellenic Data Protection Authority in a case involving the processing of employee data.

PwC will have to work to rebuild trust after shock GDPR fine
The Greek representative of PwC is the first of the “Big 4” to be fined under the GDPR. Moreover, it’s the first consultancy that has actually helped many of its clients with GDPR compliance over the last year. It seems astounding that a company of PwC’s size and reputation that’s making a lot of money on giving advice on the GDPR has been burned by the very fire they help clients to avoid on a daily basis.

Or perhaps we’re just ignoring it completely. Research just out has shown what we already know to be the case — most of those cookie notices everywhere aren’t following the EU privacy-first GDPR regulations. At all.

Most EU cookie ‘consent’ notices are meaningless or manipulative, study finds
Their industry snapshot of cookie consent notices found that the majority are placed at the bottom of the screen (58%); not blocking the interaction with the website (93%); and offering no options other than a confirmation button that does not do anything (86%). So no choice at all then.

A majority also try to nudge users towards consenting (57%) — such as by using ‘dark pattern’ techniques like using a color to highlight the ‘agree’ button (which if clicked accepts privacy-unfriendly defaults) vs displaying a much less visible link to ‘more options’ so that pro-privacy choices are buried off screen.

And while they found that nearly all cookie notices (92%) contained a link to the site’s privacy policy, only a third (39%) mention the specific purpose of the data collection or who can access the data (21%).

[…]

This is an important finding because GDPR is unambiguous in stating that if an Internet service is relying on consent as a legal basis to process visitors’ personal data it must obtain consent before processing data (so before a tracking cookie is dropped) — and that consent must be specific, informed and freely given.

Yet, as the study confirms, it really doesn’t take much clicking around the regional Internet to find a gaslighting cookie notice that pops up with a mocking message saying by using this website you’re consenting to your data being processed how the site sees fit — with just a single ‘Ok’ button to affirm your lack of say in the matter.

In the way that those US academics highlighted the dark patterns used with shopping sites, there needs to be a way of reporting and highlighting these non-compliant cookie notices, or they’ll just get away with it.

No idea

I’m glad I’m not the only one who feels a little clueless sometimes. But, as Amit Katwala from Wired UK concludes, “you have to question the ‘wisdom of crowds’ and the ‘will of the people’ when five per cent of Brits don’t even know if they’ve planned their own funeral.”

Why I’m obsessed with people who respond ‘don’t know’ to really obvious YouGov questions
Scrolling through the results of similar polls over subsequent days, weeks and months, I found a country that is deeply confused on a lot of seemingly straightforward issues. Two per cent of Brits don’t know whether they’ve lived in London before. Five per cent don’t know whether they’ve been attacked by a seagull or not. A staggering one in 20 residents of this fine isle don’t know whether or not they pick their nose.

[…]

Digging into the demographics is fascinating. The further north you go in the country, the less likely people are to know whether or not they can swim. Older people are less likely to have been surfing, but more likely to know whether or not they have.

Seventeen per cent of 18- to 24-year-olds don’t know if they’ve ever attended, watched or listened to Glastonbury, compared to zero per cent of the over-65s. Generally (based on my admittedly unscientific whizz through the funniest-looking poll questions), the 18- to 24-year-old age bracket seems the most likely to respond ‘don’t know’ – which could be down to their relative lack of life experience, or perhaps general indifference to surveys as a whole. By the same token, maybe it’s unsurprising that the over-50s seem pretty sure of themselves.

Has e-mail had its day?

However much we might loathe it, I used to think that e-mail was here to stay. But now I’m not too sure. How many people do you know who enjoy using it? How many young people do you know who use it at all?

Perhaps it will go the same way as CDs or VHS tapes — technological marvels that revolutionised everything, only to become old-fashioned and disappear shortly afterwards. Let’s hope.

Was e-mail a mistake?
Digital messaging was supposed to make our work lives easier and more efficient, but the mathematics of distributed systems suggests that meetings might be better.

Email hackers are winning
The lesson of Efail is that you can build everything well, but if you’ve built on a bad foundation, there’s no structure strong enough to stand. No one is responsible for email itself, and in the days since the Efail disclosure people have been pointing fingers at each other—email clients, vendors, OpenPGP standards, and S/mime software vendors. It’s no one’s fault and it’s everyone’s fault. These kinds of disclosures, and the hacks built on the flaws of email, will keep coming for the foreseeable future.

Hoover’s fatal mess

A cautionary tale from the 90s. How not to manage a marketing campaign.

The worst sales promotion in history: Hoover’s free flight fiasco
In late 1992, the UK branch of the vacuum manufacturer, Hoover, offered an impossibly sweet promotion: If a customer bought any product worth £100, he’d get two free round-trip flights to the United States.

What could possibly go wrong? Well, pretty much everything. Multi-million pound losses and the end of the company, at one time one of the most trusted in the UK.

Under a new promotion, that same £100 Hoover purchase could net a UK-based customer two free round-trip flights to New York or Orlando — a package worth £600+ (£1200, or $1,460 USD, today).

When Hoover ran this plan by risk management professionals, the company was warned that it would be an absolute disaster.

“To me it made no logical sense,” recalled Mark Kimber, one of the consultants. “Having looked at the details of the promotion [and] attempting to calculate how it would actually work I declined to even offer risk management coverage.”

A quick look at the numbers. What were they thinking?

hoovers-fatal-mess

Don’t give up on social media just yet

Most of the social media articles I share here are quite negative. I think it’s got a lot to answer for, in making us less social. But perhaps there are some pockets of positivity out there, as this Scientific American blog post explains.

The technology of kindness
People’s ability to connect is the glue that holds our culture together. By thinning out our interactions and splintering our media landscape, the Internet has taken away the common ground we need to understand one another. Each of us is becoming more confident about our own world just as it drifts farther from the worlds of others.

[…]

Diagnosing technology’s damaging effects is the first step toward reversing them. Harris co-founded the Center for Humane Technology to encourage developers and investors to build “regenerative,” rather than extractive, online platforms. The idea is that our capacity for empathy runs just as deep as our vanity, outrage or fear, and technology should highlight healthier forces.

Rather than thinking that Twitter and Facebook are the only options, we’re introduced to ChangeAView, RareConnect, Koko and 7 Cups.

Sites such as ChangeAView and 7 Cups can appear like oases of connection in a landscape bereft of it—exceptions that prove the rule. But what sets connected platforms apart is their break from common, antisocial online practices. They allow people to be vulnerable and visible to one another and reward them for listening rather than shouting. Other social media companies could follow suit: by reforming their incentive structures such that open-minded, positive posts rise more quickly or by facilitating longer, richer communication between users. But they must make progress on this mission intentionally and soon.

Perhaps there’s hope for them (and us) yet.

Life’s ups and downs

Going to any amusement parks this summer? Maybe give this one a miss.

An amusement park-themed animated short by Fernando Livschitz goes off the rails
The fate of riders on roller coasters and ferris wheels takes an unexpected turn in “Beautiful Chaos”, a new short from Fernando Livschitz of Black Sheep Films.

Beautiful Chaos
Chaos it said to be the opposite of order, and order, the basis for beauty. But that doesn’t mean that chaos can’t be beautiful too.

It reminds me of one of my favourite videos, the award-winning Centrifuge Brain Project, from the Institute for Centrifugal Research, by Till Nowak.

The Centrifuge Brain Project
Written/produced/directed by Till Nowak, starring Leslie Barany.

It’s from 2011, but clips from this are still making the rounds on social media, fooling people into thinking these nightmarish constructions are real.

Till Nowak makes impossible possible
“There are actually still people, especially if they see it on the internet, that really think everything is real. To me that is super interesting because the film is also about our reception of media, how we believe everything, how media can manipulate us. I had never expected that a lot of people would believe the whole film. I thought okay, maybe the first half, but then… For me as a filmmaker and my filmmaker friends, it is very obvious. But people who are not working with the media, it is very surprising for me, how much they believe. Sometimes it is a bit shocking – but also an honor and a compliment because it means that the film was convincing,” Nowak comments.

Nothing will change unless something changes

Such horrible news, again. Here’s The Onion, again.

‘No way to prevent this,’ says only nation where this regularly happens
DAYTON, OH—In the hours following a violent rampage in Ohio in which a lone attacker killed 10 individuals and injured 27 others, citizens living in the only country where this kind of mass killing routinely occurs reportedly concluded Sunday that there was no way to prevent the massacre from taking place.

‘No way to prevent this,’ says only nation where this regularly happens
EL PASO, TX—In the hours following a violent rampage in Texas in which a lone attacker killed 20 individuals and injured 26 others, citizens living in the only country where this kind of mass killing routinely occurs reportedly concluded Sunday that there was no way to prevent the massacre from taking place.

The ‘Recommended Stories’ section on each of those pages really drives the point home.

nothing-will-change-2

It’s difficult for other countries to understand why this is still such an issue.

America’s mass shootings are a political choice
Empirically, the US is an outlier on gun violence because it is an outlier on gun access. Americans have easier access not just to guns, but specifically to military-designed semi-automatic weapons with large magazines that are able to murder with efficiency.

Getting rid of those weapons might not solve all the problems, but it’s a start, surely.

Non-reflecting reflections

We’re continually fascinated by mirrors, the first selfies, regardless of what Borges might sayWired introduces us to the work of interactive artist Daniel Rozin and shows us a few of his mechanical marvels.

This artist makes kinetic ‘mirrors’ that echo your movements
The interactive element is crucial, according to Rozin. “My pieces are very boring when there’s not a person in front of them,” he explains. “But the minute a person stands in front, it takes your image. I try to think that maybe it takes more than your image, that maybe it’s capturing something about your soul and displaying it back to you.”

How this guy makes amazing mechanical mirrors
Daniel Rozin, Artist and Professor, Interactive Telecommunications Program, NYU, makes mechanical “mirrors” out of uncommon objects that mimic the viewer’s movements and form.

Daniel Rozin, “PomPom Mirror,” 2015

As well as creating mirrors from fur and hundreds of stuffed toys, what else could you use? Mud?

Interactive sculptures mirror visitors’ movements in shimmering fabrics and cracked clay
In his recent piece Cracked Mud (2019), a mound of clay pieces undulate and upturn in response to visitors’ movements below a low-hanging orb. The suspended light mimics the sun, hovering over the manipulated and cracked earth below. Another piece, Fabric Mirror (2019), uses a digital camera and 400 motors to capture the movements of those who walk past, imitating their gestures in twisting gold and red fabric. Both works allude to how the sun interacts with our bodies and the earth, the former representing a barren future, while the later explores our reflection bathed in shimmering gold.

The global design collection Universal Everything take a similar but more high-tech approach here, with this installation that greeted visitors to The Barbican’s recent AI: More Than Human exhibition.

Futuristic shapes mirror human movement in a responsive animation by Universal Everything
Future You presents a non-human animated figure that wiggles, shifts, and bends in tandem with the user, presenting up to 47,000 possible variations in appearance. The animation also evolves alongside the user, becoming more agile as it learns movements specific to the visitor’s body.

Future You installation at AI: More Than Human, Barbican, London

Trying to remember

Another article about China, this time looking at how protesters and censors try to outwit each other.

The forbidden images of the Chinese internet
Some removed images are unsurprising: depictions of state-sanctioned violence, cartoons disparaging government leaders, and aerial shots of protests. But many of them appear innocuous at first glance. All images—even harmless ones—of top Chinese political leaders are banned, except on official websites and approved blogs. For other content, moderators tend to err on the side of caution since private companies, rather than the government, are responsible for complying with state guidelines. After President Xi Jinping eliminated term limits, for example, censors temporarily banned the letter “n,” which was likely a reference to the math symbol and was used to poke fun at the undefined length of his tenure.

[…]

While Pooh Bear might be the most well-known of playful creatures removed from China’s web, he’s not the only one. Years earlier, censors blotted out mention of a 72-foot-tall inflatable frog after internet users likened it to former president Jiang Zemin, once nicknamed “toad.” And after a 2013 recreation of “Tank Man” replaced the tanks with inflatable rubber ducks, “the yellow rubber duck, in whatever context, was doomed to the blacklist forever,” Smith said.

Anything that might jog netizens’ memory of controversial events is subject to scrutiny. Images of candles, typically held at memorials, were removed around the time of the Tiananmen Square anniversary. Other, more covert references, such as playing cards that read “8964” for the year 1989 and date June 4th, have been removed. When Liu Xiaobo died in July 2017, censors went so far as to block out images of an empty chair—Liu was honored with an empty chair at the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize ceremony when he was barred from leaving the country, turning a mundane household object into a political symbol.

An accidental typographer

Check out the work of Shuetsu Sato, a Japanese security guard who’s accidentally become a graphic designer and typographer.

Tokyo subway’s humble duct-tape typographer
Walk the bowels of these stations long enough and you may come across Shuetsu Sato 佐藤修悦. Sixty-five year old Sato san wears a crisp canary yellow uniform, reflective vest and polished white helmet. His job is to guide rush hour commuters through confusing and hazardous construction areas. When Sato san realised he needed more than his megaphone to perform this duty, he took it upon himself to make some temporary signage. With a few rolls of of duct tape and a craft knife, he has elevated the humble worksite sign to an art form.

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The tree rings of US immigration

Here’s an unusual way of representing population growth. Pedro M Cruz, from Northeastern University in Boston, takes two centuries of US census data and shows the increasing population as rings of a tree, one for each decade.

For a radical new perspective on immigration, picture the US as an ancient tree
According to Cruz, the tree metaphor ‘carries the idea that these marks in the past are immutable’ and it ‘embodies the concept that all cells contributed to the organism’s growth’. As with so many renderings of US history, indigenous populations are conspicuously absent from the tableau. Still, Cruz’s skilfully deployed data doubles as a resonant work of cultural commentary, offering a rich and often surprising look at the ever-evolving makeup of the country.

There’s more information on the video’s Vimeo page.

Simulated dendrochronology of U.S. immigration (1830-2015)
Trees in their natural setting have annual growth rings that reflect varying environmental conditions; the rings’ forms are neither perfect circles nor ellipses. The algorithm is inspired by this variation and accordingly deposits immigrant cells in specific directions depending on the geographic origin of the immigrant. Rings that are more skewed toward the country’s East, for example, show more immigration from Europe, while rings skewed South show more immigration from Latin America. With this, it is possible to observe the quantity of immigration through the thickness of the rings. The color of the cells corresponds to specific cultural-geographical regions.

Another mysterious Da Vinci

Is it a real Da Vinci? And who really owns it? Not questions about the Salvator Mundi, this time.

Family claims quarter share of disputed Isleworth Mona Lisa
The attribution of a painting known as the Isleworth Mona Lisa has been a matter of dispute for more than a century. Its owners say it was an earlier portrait by Leonardo da Vinci of the same woman, Lisa Gherardini, whose likeness hangs in the Louvre. Other experts believe it is a later copy of the world’s most famous painting.

This week it has emerged that the painting’s ownership is also bitterly contested. Giovanni Battista Protti, a lawyer based in Padua, represents a family who he says owns 25% of the portrait. A civil court in Florence, where the painting has been on show for the past six weeks, has now set a hearing for the ownership dispute for 9 September.

Happy minimalism

I mentioned earlier how metal has the power to make us happy. Whilst I enjoyed riffing down memory lane, the music that lifts my spirits now is more orchestral.

Here, composer David Bruce introduces us to minimalism and the work of Steve Reich, Philip Glass and, in particular, John Adams. I remember being completely blown away when I first heard this type of music, on a CD just called Minimalist, and it’s great to understand a little more about some of the orchestral decisions that goes into such work.

How John Adams writes for orchestra (The Chairman Dances & influence of minimalism)
The early minimalists choice of instruments and ways of composing influenced a whole generation of composers, myself included. In this video I look at how the style they developed went on to influence later orchestral compositions, in particular looking at the orchestral technique in John Adam’s piece ‘The Chairman Dances’.

And here’s that performance in full.

The Chairman Dances by John Adams – BBC Philharmonic Orchestra

Now for something completely different. I’ve been vaguely aware of the name Victor Borge for a while, but never really knew anything about him or his stage routines. Consider this one of the YouTube recommendation algorithm’s big successes.

Victor Borge – Piano jokes

Les Dawson, anyone?

New from the DfE

The GOV.UK website is enormous, and with new publications and announcements being released every day, it’s easy to miss something important. Thankfully, most topics, departments and even ministers have a ‘get e-mail alerts’ link that’s really helpful. I’ve signed up for e-mail alerts from the Department of Education. Here are a few recent publications that caught my eye.

Advice for schools on how to prepare for Brexit
Including: Informing pupils and staff from the EU about the EU Settlement Scheme; EU pupils and staff arriving after Brexit; School places for EU nationals and UK pupils returning to England from the EU after Brexit; Data Protection; Food supplies; Medical supplies.

Teacher workload advisory group report and government response
This report from the Teacher workload advisory group sets out recommendations and principles to reduce the unnecessary workload associated with data and evidence collection. The government has accepted all the recommendations in full.

Understanding child and adolescent wellbeing: a system map
A report on the factors that influence children and young people’s (CYP) wellbeing from the perspective of CYP practitioners. This research used system mapping to capture the perceptions of the 21 children and young people’s (CYP) practitioners who participated in the study.

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