Visualising our plastic problem

I’m sure I’m not the only one who has difficulty visualising large numbers. It can make the significance of some news stories hard to grasp, especially environmental ones.

By comparing the number of plastic bottles sold around the world to such things as a rubbish truck, the Eiffel Tower, and even Manhattan, Reuters have published a very effective way of getting across ridiculous statistics like 54,900,000 bottles sold every hour, 1,300,000,000 sold every day, and 481,600,000,000 sold every year. (via Cool Infographics)

Drowning in plastic: Visualising the world’s addiction to plastic bottlesReuters
Around the world, almost 1 million plastic bottles are purchased every minute. As the environmental impact of that tide of plastic becomes a growing political issue, major packaged goods sellers and retailers are under pressure to cut the flow of the single-use bottles and containers that are clogging the world’s waterways.

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Tasty type

You don’t normally associate McDonald’s with minimalism, but these new billboard ads are pretty cut back, to say the least. No photos, no logos, no branding.

These ads make you think of McDonald’s with just 5 words and 5 coloursDigital Arts
The messaging is equally simple. It isn’t introducing ‘healthy’ options, a new burger, offer or competition – or putting the idea of McDonalds as comfort food in your mind. It’s just designed to catch your eye, bring a moment of delight at the recognition of what you’re seeing and make you think of picking up a McDonalds on the way home or stopping during a long journey.

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I admit I find these ads quite appealing. The product, not so much.

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So, farewell then, EU

My first post tagged Brexit was in 2016, looking at the higher education angle. Since then, I’ve shared nearly 40 more, and here we are, our final day as members of the European Union, spending our 50p coins on tea towels.

The full story didn’t start in 2016, however. This comprehensive yet accessible look at the history of this struggle—how to balance control and influence—starts with Atlee in the 60s, and continues with Thatcher in the 70s and 80s, and Maastricht in the 90s.

Why Britain BrexitedThe Atlantic
The conservative British-American historian Niall Ferguson regards Brexit as beginning not with the 2016 referendum but with this period, with Britain’s decision not to follow much of the rest of the EU into the euro. “Britain was an equal and voluntary member of a very loose and voluntary confederation until European leaders tried to turn it into something more like a federation,” he told me. “Brexit was a logical conclusion.” Anand Menon, a professor of European politics and foreign affairs at King’s College London, agrees: “Britain emerged [from Maastricht] having secured exceptions from those bits of the treaty it most opposed. Yet Maastricht represented a turning point in our relationship with European integration and contributed, albeit indirectly, to our decision to leave.”

So what happens now? All change? Not so much, at first.

Brexit explained: how it happened and what comes nextThe Guardian
British passport holders will continue to be able to travel and work in the EU because the country remains in the single market for the transition period up to 31 December and the freedom of movement of goods, people, services and capital over borders applies until then.

Give it a few months, though, and Brexit will be all over the news once more.

Brexit: here’s what happens nextThe Conversation
By the end of June we will have had the first major dilemma: whether to extend the transition period or not. The withdrawal agreement includes the option to extend the negotiation period for one or two years but that decision must be made by July. Johnson has also already said he does not intend to extend.

Whether or not Johnson sticks to that pledge matters deeply. If there is no extension, then the rest of 2020 will become a race to conclude as much of an agreement as possible before the December 31 deadline. Given the Christmas break, that means getting to a text by mid-December, so that it can begin a provisional implementation. This means allowing much of the agreement to come into effect, while the ratification by both sides trundles on in the background.

Since this truncated timeline makes it harder to reach a comprehensive relationship, businesses and citizens will have to think about preparing themselves for a marked change of circumstances at the year’s end. In the worst case, with no agreement at all, that might look a lot like the no-deal scenarios that were much-discussed in 2019. Only Northern Ireland will have a cushion.

The road to Brexit: the lols and the lowsYouTube

Art worth the money

Toying around with Sedition is all well and good, but what if you’ve got some serious cash to spend on art?

Dalí and Gala with their ‘heads full of clouds’ go up for sale at BonhamsThe Art Newspaper
An Elysian diptych Salvador Dalí painted of himself and his wife Gala with their “heads full of clouds” is set to lead Bonhams’s Impressionist and Modern Art sale in London on 26 March. Dalí made the oil-on-wood-panel painting Couple aux têtes pleines de nuages (1937) (est £7m-£10m) at the height of his Surrealist period, when the Spanish Civil War drove the artist to produce several pieces considered to be masterworks for their mesmeric portrayals of the unconscious mind and Freudian paradigms.

Alternatively, here’s something a little approachable, relatable, inspirational, hopeful, meaningful.

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Prospect Cottage needs you nowArt Fund
On the windswept shore of Dungeness, visionary British filmmaker, artist and activist Derek Jarman transformed a Victorian fisherman’s hut into a sanctuary of art and imagination. Prospect Cottage and its iconic garden stand testament to his defiant spirit, and have the potential to inspire artists and visitors long into the future. But they are at risk. Help us raise £3.5 million to #SaveProspectCottage, and secure its future as a centre of creative activity – for everyone.

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‘A toolbox for his work’: fundraiser launched to save Derek Jarman’s home – The Guardian
Deller said the cottage gave a great insight in to what Jarman was like as an artist. “The word unique is overused, but this really is a unique environment, it’s a unique building. Within it you can see his thought processes, you can see his work and it is all in such incredible condition … he deserves to have this kept as it was.”

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I remember being quite moved by Blue when it came out in the 90s. I still have the book that went with it, I think, somewhere. I really hope this fundraising project is successful, he was quite a creative force.

Twitter news echoes

Grumpy old man alert! I know everyone uses Twitter to find news these days, but I can do without news organisations passing off as news what’s simply a report on what’s been said on Twitter. Hashtag: lazy-journalism-question-mark; hashtag: these-are-not-slow-news-days-after-all; hashtag: 24-hour-news-filler-I-can-do-without; hashtag: yes-I-know-hashtags-don’t-work-like-this.

Trump’s new Space Force logo looks awfully familiar to Star Trek fansThe Verge
Although, as one user on Twitter noted, the designers did seem to take some cues from the NASA logo, predominantly the exact placement of the stars that appear to have been copied over directly.

Philip Pullman calls for boycott of Brexit 50p coin over ‘missing’ Oxford commaThe Guardian
“The ‘Brexit’ 50p coin is missing an Oxford comma, and should be boycotted by all literate people,” wrote the novelist on Twitter, while Times Literary Supplement editor Stig Abell wrote that, while it was “not perhaps the only objection” to the Brexit-celebrating coin, “the lack of a comma after ‘prosperity’ is killing me”.

Broadcasters speak up for Alastair Stewart after ITV News exitBBC News
ITV presenter Julie Etchingham wrote on Twitter: “So sad to learn this – we have worked on many big stories together & Al is a trusted friend and guide to many of us.”

Real life Rothko

We’ve seen Rothkos on iPhones before, but how about some from the algae covered marshes of the south of France?

Defying vertigo to capture aerials from an ultralight planeWired
From above, Chesnel discovered, the seaside landscapes of southern France look like abstract paintings, with vibrant bands of color bleeding into each other. They reminded her of canvases by the mid-century American artist Mark Rothko. Some marshes were pink or orange, thanks to the proliferation of an algae called Dunaliella salina. Depending on their levels of salinization and types of algae, other marshes were green, golden yellow, or brown. “I like pushing the boundary between paintings and photographs,” says Chesnel, who trained as a painter and only recently transitioned into photography. […]

Chesnel hopes that viewers of the images will be temporarily lifted out of their everyday concerns and given a fresh outlook on the world. … “From the ground you may see something that doesn’t look glamorous at all, but from above it becomes beautiful,” she says.

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Just as mad as those in China.

Lorem ipsum, but for images

I wish I had more of a use for this, it’s a cool little resource from Stefan Bohacek.

Generative placeholders
Use generative art as your image placeholders.

There are lots of different styles to choose from.

Keep hitting ‘refresh’ to generate new versions. And in case you were wondering, this is what lorem ipsum means. Possibly.

Lorem ipsum translated: it remains Greek to meThe Guardian
The apparently random Latin placeholder text, used to help design pages, has been translated. Despite the absence of meaning, it’s weirdly mesmerising.

Leave us alone

Hot on the heels of Robot Day is Data Protection Day, initiated by the Council of Europe  in 2007.

Data Protection DayCouncil of Europe
The Council of Europe is celebrating this year the 14th edition of Data Protection Day. This initiative aims to raise the individuals awareness about good practices in this field, informing them about their rights and how to exercise them.

Joint statement by Vice-President Jourová and Commissioner Reynders ahead of Data Protection DayEuropean Commission
Data is becoming increasingly important for our economy and for our daily lives. With the roll-out of 5G and uptake of the Artificial Intelligence and Internet of Things technologies, personal data will be in abundance and with potential uses we probably can’t imagine. While this offers amazing opportunities, some cases show that robust rules are needed to address clear risks for individuals and for our democracies. In Europe we know that strong data protection rules are not a luxury, but a necessity. […]

20 months after the entry into application of the landmark General Data Protection Regulation, we see that the GDPR has acted as a catalyst to put data protection at the centre of many of the on-going policy debates. It is a cornerstone of the European approach underpinning several political priorities of the new Commission promoting a human centric approach to Artificial Intelligence and other digital technologies. European Data Protection rules will therefore be a foundation and inspiration for the success of key initiatives in artificial intelligence, health or mobility to name just a few.

Part of me wants to find out how our leaving the EU on Friday will affect this, but a larger part of me is too fed up with the whole stupid act of national self-harm to bother.

Happy “Data Privacy Day” – Now read The New York Times privacy project about total surveillanceForbes
The shocking thing about the obvious and growing loss of privacy is how unconcerned everyone is. Technologists started “snooping” around servers, desktops and data bases years ago to understand the status of hardware and software and how they should be managed. Enterprise snooping is still a best practice. But snooping is now central to entire national and global business models, and has emerged with a scary name: surveillance capitalism. No one predicted how pervasive snooping would become. No one predicted just how much profit snooping would generate, and no one predicted how entire populations would essentially shrug their shoulders about how they’re stalked each and every day – to make someone else money!

I’ve shared a number of articles about surveillance before, including one from The New York Times Privacy Project mentioned above, but there are many more to worry over.

Surprisingly (not really), Google doesn’t seem to be celebrating the day with a Google Doodle, although there is a prompt to complete a privacy check-up.

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I quite like Protect Internet health and privacy with Mozilla’s internet health initiative, on the other hand.

Data detox: Five ways to reset your relationship with your phoneThe Firefox Frontier
We use our phones for everything from hailing rides to ordering in, and even to track our literal steps. All that convenience at our fingertips comes at a cost: our personal data and our mental health. It’s hard to be present in the moment when push notifications and texts are enticing us to look down. Meanwhile, the amount of personal data we share, many times without even realizing, can be alarming.

But not all hope is lost! Here are five simple steps you can take to protect your data and sanity.

A few lines about where I live

First, some contour lines that let you turn the world into a Joy Division album cover.

Peak map
This website allows you to pick any region of the world and print its high points in artistic, joyful manner.

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And these lines show that all roads don’t always lead to Rome.

City roads
This website renders every single road within a city.

Here’s Leeds, Yorkshire, England, United Kingdom. My Leeds.

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This is Leeds, Jefferson County, Alabama, United States of America. Not my Leeds.

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Lines of a different kind now. Centre the map on any location for a few lines of poetry.

OpenStreetMap Haiku

Some are quite poignant, like this poem centred on a nearby children’s hospital.

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Others would make interesting advertising campaigns.

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It’s a fascinating way of humanising geography. And quite addictive, too.

OpenStreetMap Haiku: Using OSM and Overpass for generative poetrySatellite Studio
Here’s what’s happening: we automated making haikus about places. Looking at every aspect of the surroundings of a point, we can generate a poem about any place in the world. The result is sometimes fun, often weird, most of the time pretty terrible. Also probably horrifying for haiku purists (sorry). Go ahead and give it a try.

Packed your school bag, kids?

There are other collections of school exercise books around, but this one is fully online and looks to be vast, with hundreds of children’s exercise books from across the globe, from the 1700s to 2000s.

Exercise Book Archive
The Exercise Book Archive is an ever-growing collection of old exercise books from all over the world. Everybody is invited to discover the history, education, and daily life of the children and young people of the past through this unique material.

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The Boeing. France, March 31, 1973

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3rd year of school 1943-44. Austria, September 1943

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My Friend. United Kingdom, March 7, 1936

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The blizzard at Honey Brook. United States of America, February 1899

A new family of brass instruments

I have the pleasure (?) of living in a household with a number of brass instruments, but I’ve never seen anything like these.

Brass horns mounted in interactive sculptures by Steve Parker emit sound by touchColossal
Artist and musician Steve Parker’s latest interactive projects invite viewers to feel the music⁠—literally. Activated by touch, “Ghost Box” plays randomized audio segments on a loop, including the ticks of Morse Code, the chorus of spirituals, and the blows of the shofar and Iron Age Celtic carnyx. Each time someone makes contact with a part of the wall sculpture, a new noise emits. Inspired by WWII era short wave radio, the mounted piece is constructed from a mix of salvaged brass, tactical maps, paper musical scores, wires, map pins, electronics, audio components, and an instrument case. The name even references the paranormal tool sometimes employed when people try to communicate with those who have died.

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Ghost BoxVimeo

And whilst these may look loud, they’re actually listening devices that remind me of those concrete sound mirrors.

TubascopesSteve Parker
The Tubascope is a sculpture that works likes a telescope for your ears. Modeled after obsolete WWII acoustic locators, the Tubascope is made from reclaimed and repurposed brass instruments that have been augmented with tubing and headphones. When used, the Tubascope helps a person focus their listening on specific, far away sounds that may have been otherwise unnoticed.

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TubascopesVimeo

Now, these mad trombone and trumpet shapes really reminded me of paintings I first came across at university (25 years ago now? goodness me), but I couldn’t for the life of me remember who they were by—murals, I think, in collaboration with school children, somehow. And for all I moan on about Google, it did come to the rescue with such vague search terms as painting, trumpets, children, mural.

Tim Rollins & K.O.S.Institute for Research in Art
The history of Tim Rollins and K.O.S. (Kids of Survival) is a story of art and education triumphing over the hardships of life. It is a story which might have been torn from the pages of great literature. In fact, the group uses pages cut from classical literature as the groundwork for many of their paintings and as the source of imagery for their works.

Yes, that’s the one! He was a teacher in the 80s working with under-privileged kids to create art that would “transport his students from the tough streets of New York to the inner sanctums of major museums as celebrated artists”.

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But alas.

Tim Rollins, artist and activist whose work thrived on collaboration, dies at 62ARTnews
Tim Rollins, whose work bridged the gap between activism and art, bringing together strands of literature and art history, painting, Minimalism, conceptual art, and social justice, has died of natural causes, according to the Maureen Paley gallery, which showed him in London, and Lehmann Maupin, which showed him in New York and Hong Kong. He was 62.

Far too young.

Happy Robot Day!

They come in all shapes and sizes, but they’re all 99 years old today, kind of.

Today in History 1921: The word ‘Robot’ enters the English languageBoing Boing
On January 25, 1921 the Czech play Rossum’s Universal Robots premiered, entering the word into the Science Fiction vocabulary.

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The Czech play that gave us the word ‘Robot’The MIT Press Reader
Thus, “R.U.R.,” which gave birth to the robot, was a critique of mechanization and the ways it can dehumanize people. The word itself derives from the Czech word “robota,” or forced labor, as done by serfs. Its Slavic linguistic root, “rab,” means “slave.” The original word for robots more accurately defines androids, then, in that they were neither metallic nor mechanical.

The contrast between robots as mechanical slaves and potentially rebellious destroyers of their human makers echoes Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” and helps set the tone for later Western characterizations of robots as slaves straining against their lot, ready to burst out of control. The duality echoes throughout the twentieth century: Terminator, HAL 9000, Blade Runner’s replicants.

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Machine Morality and Human ResponsibilityThe New Atlantis
This year [2011] marks the ninetieth anniversary of the first performance of the play from which we get the term “robot.” The Czech playwright Karel Čapek’s R.U.R. premiered in Prague on January 25, 1921. Physically, Čapek’s robots were not the kind of things to which we now apply the term: they were biological rather than mechanical, and humanlike in appearance. But their behavior should be familiar from its echoes in later science fiction — for Čapek’s robots ultimately bring about the destruction of the human race.

Before R.U.R., artificially created anthropoids, like Frankenstein’s monster or modern versions of the Jewish legend of the golem, might have acted destructively on a small scale; but Čapek seems to have been the first to see robots as an extension of the Industrial Revolution, and hence to grant them a reach capable of global transformation. Though his robots are closer to what we now might call androids, only a pedant would refuse Čapek honors as the father of the robot apocalypse.

I hope someone’s planning a big celebration next year.

Moving away from paper monitors

Thinking about the old web again, and how different web pages looked back then, compared to now. In a word, tiny.

A short history of body copy sizes on the WebFlorens Verschelde
Ten and 11 pixels may seem puny today, but in the early 2000s that was deemed readable for two reasons:

  1. the 800×600 and 1024×768 screens of the late 1990s and early 2000s had biggish pixels, so the result was on the small side but not as small as it might look today;
  2. designers and their clients were accustomed to 9, 10 and 11 point sizes for body copy in print (books, magazines, leaflets…), and the prospect of using bigger values felt like shouting at readers.

It took quite an effort to pull web designers away from this assumption that screens should be treated the same way as print.

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In November 2006, iA’s Oliver Reichenstein ran a simple experiment: he compared a magazine’s body copy at arms’ length and a typical site’s body copy at a common, eye-to-desktop-screen distance. The website’s text looked much smaller. Oliver argued for setting the body copy to the browser’s default, or 100%, which by convention is 16px in common browsers. In 2006, and even a few years later, it was a revolutionary proposition. Web designers and clients thought it was extreme. Five years later, we still had to fight for the death of 11px body copy (example, in French).

It’s been interesting to see how text has been treated over the years, not only on the various default WordPress themes but on blogs like Jason Kottke’s, and my own when it was on Blogger. Layouts like Swiss Miss’s look anachronistic now.

Verschelde’s exploration into this aspect of web design is full of links to examples and other articles about typography and layout, including Jeremy Keith’s Resilient web design, a online book that uses CSS to smoothly vary the font size depending on the width of the screen. It’s a great read, especially the opening chapter’s review of the intertwined history of interfaces.

Resilient Web Design – Chapter 1
The hands on a clock face move in a clockwise direction only because that’s the direction that the shadow cast by a sundial moves over the course of a day in the northern hemisphere. Had history turned out differently, with the civilisation of the southern hemisphere in the ascendent, then the hands on our clocks would today move in the opposite direction. […]

These echoes of the past reverberate in the present even when their usefulness has been outlived. You’ll still sometimes see a user interface that displays an icon of a Compact Disc or vinyl record to represent music. That same interface might use the image of a 3½ inch floppy disk to represent the concept of saving data. The reason why floppy disks wound up being 3½ inches in size is because the disk was designed to fit into a shirt pocket. The icons in our software interfaces are whispering stories to us from the history of clothing and fashion.

The quote used in the introduction to that online book seems appropriate here.

We look at the present through a rear‐view mirror. We march backwards into the future.
Marshall McLuhan

Google’s dark patterns

Google’s being sneaky again. Last year I shared an article about research into ‘dark patterns’, sneaky user interface tricks that shopping websites use to catch us out. It seems the search advertising giant is getting in on the act now.

Google’s ads just look like search results nowThe Verge
Last week, Google began rolling out a new look for its search results on desktop, which blurs the line between organic search results and the ads that sit above them. In what appears to be something of a purposeful dark pattern, the only thing differentiating ads and search results is a small black-and-white “Ad” icon next to the former. It’s been formatted to resemble the new favicons that now appear next to the search results you care about. Early data collected by Digiday suggests that the changes may already be causing people to click on more ads.

Indeed, when I search for pet insurance, I can hardly see any real search results without scrolling down.

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Google made a big change to search results that makes it harder to distinguish ads from regular results, and people are calling Google out for itBusiness Insider
This is not the first time Google has been accused of using manipulative design practices, known as “dark patterns,” to trick users into clicking on ads.

The Wall Street Journal reporter Rolfe Winkler said the Federal Trade Commission sent letters in 2013 to Google and other search engines saying the distinction between ads and organic search results had become “less noticeable to consumers.” In the letters, the FTC told the companies to “make any necessary adjustments to ensure you clearly and prominently disclose any advertising.”

I’d say those letters have been completely ignored, wouldn’t you?

Update 26/01/2020

A rethink.

Google backtracks on desktop search redesign blurring ads from organic resultsBoing Boing
Google’s recently announced new redesign of desktop search results would have made ads pretty much look exactly like search results. Google is now backtracking, listening to the criticism, and trying a different visual approach.

Google backtracks on search results designTechCrunch
The company acknowledged that its latest experiment might have gone too far in its latest statement and noted that it will “experiment further” on how it displays results.

The need for collective action

Whilst we might agree with the impassioned speeches from Davos on the desperate need to address the climate emergency, we might struggle to think what we can do, as individuals, to help.

This rallying cry from Tom Oliver, Professor of Applied Ecology at University of Reading and author of The Self Delusion: The Surprising Science of How We Are Connected and Why That Matters, suggests a way forward.

Climate crisis: we are not individuals fighting a faceless system – we are the system that needs to changeThe Conversation
To gain all these benefits, we need a change of mindset. It is often said that when we are young and optimistic, we strive to change the world around us, but when we are older and wiser, we realise the futility of this and aspire to change ourselves instead.

Yet to solve the major environmental problems the world now faces, we actually need to do both – to change the world and ourselves. In fact, it is even more nuanced than that – because changing ourselves is a prerequisite for changing the world. Realising the true nature of our human connectedness actually engenders more ethical and environmentally responsible behaviours.

Don’t keep it to yourself

I read quite a lot, as most of us do—from books and newspapers, screens and  phones. But when was the last time you read aloud? Or had something read aloud to you?

As Meghan Cox Gurdon explains, in this extract from her book The Enchanted Hour: The Miraculous Power of Reading Aloud In the Age of Distraction, reading aloud is something that goes way back.

Rediscovering the lost power of reading aloudLiterary Hub
So far as we can tell, starting in Paleolithic times, in every place where there are or have been people, there has been narrative. Here is Gilgamesh, the Sumerian epic recorded on clay tablets in cuneiform script 1,500 years before Homer. Here are the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, vast Sanskrit poems dating from the 9th and 8th centuries BC. Here too is the thousand-year-old Anglo-Saxon legend Beowulf, the Icelandic Völsunga saga, the Malian epic Sundiata, the Welsh Mabinogion, the Persian, Egyptian, and Mesopotamian ferment of The Thousand and One Nights, and the 19th-century Finnish and Karelian epic the Kalevala. This list is necessarily partial.

Once upon a time, none of these stories had yet been fixed on a page (or a clay tablet), but were carried in the physical bodies of the people who committed them to memory. Long before Johannes Gutenberg and his printing press, and 1,000 years before cloistered monks and their illuminated manuscripts, the principal storage facility for history, poetry, and folktales was the human head. And the chief means of transmitting that cultural wealth, from generation to generation, was the human voice.

A secret photographer #2

The enigmatic Vivian Maier may be the most street photographer to hide her work from the world, and a while ago I shared an article about Masha Ivashintsova, a Russian equivalent. Here’s another, though Saul Leiter might be a little different; he was still around to see his work finally recognised.

Why Saul Leiter kept his colorful street photography secret for decadesArtsy
Yet except for his inner circle, no one saw Leiter’s personal color work until toward the end of his life. He adopted the nascent medium in the 1940s, when it was relegated to splashy advertisements and amateur shooters, not fine artists. Walker Evans called color photography “vulgar,” and his contemporaries like Robert Frank and Ansel Adams agreed. When William Eggleston, Helen Levitt, and Stephen Shore ushered in the era of color in the 1970s, Leiter, a private man who never sought fame, was barely a footnote. He had made a living shooting fashion during the heyday of Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue, but by the ’80s, he was deep in debt and nearly forgotten.

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Leiter wasn’t interested in the human condition, like Frank or Diane Arbus; instead he understood the simple poetry of a stranger’s silhouette, or raindrops on a window pane. “I may be old-fashioned, but I believe there is such a thing as a search for beauty—a delight in the nice things in the world. And I don’t think one should have to apologize for it.”

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A little robot round-up #2

Another quick look at what our new robot overlords are up to.

Robogamis are the real heirs of terminators and transformersAeon
Robogami design owes its drastic geometric reconfigurability to two main scientific breakthroughs. One is its layer-by-layer 2D manufacturing process: multiples of functional layers of the essential robotic components (ie, microcontrollers, sensors, actuators, circuits, and even batteries) are stacked on top of each other. The other is the design translation of typical mechanical linkages into a variety of folding joints (ie, fixed joint, pin joint, planar, and spherical link). […]

Robotics technology is advancing to be more personalised and adaptive for humans, and this unique species of reconfigurable origami robots shows immense promise. It could become the platform to provide the intuitive, embeddable robotic interface to meet our needs. The robots will no longer look like the characters from the movies. Instead, they will be all around us, continuously adapting their form and function – and we won’t even know it.

Biological robots – A research team builds robots from living cellsThe Economist
But one thing all robots have in common is that they are mechanical, not biological devices. They are built from materials like metal and plastic, and stuffed with electronics. No more, though—for a group of researchers in America have worked out how to use unmodified biological cells to create new sorts of organisms that might do a variety of jobs, and might even be made to reproduce themselves. […]

Though only a millimetre or so across, the artificial organisms Dr Bongard and Dr Levin have invented, which they call xenobots, can move and perform simple tasks, such as pushing pellets along in a dish. That may not sound much, but the process could, they reckon, be scaled up and made to do useful things. Bots derived from a person’s own cells might, for instance, be injected into the bloodstream to remove plaque from artery walls or to identify cancer. More generally, swarms of them could be built to seek out and digest toxic waste in the environment, including microscopic bits of plastic in the sea.

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Sounds like (old) science fiction to me.

Did HAL Commit Murder?The MIT Press Reader
As with each viewing, I discovered or appreciated new details. But three iconic scenes — HAL’s silent murder of astronaut Frank Poole in the vacuum of outer space, HAL’s silent medical murder of the three hibernating crewmen, and the poignant sorrowful “death” of HAL — prompted deeper reflection, this time about the ethical conundrums of murder by a machine and of a machine. In the past few years experimental autonomous cars have led to the death of pedestrians and passengers alike. AI-powered bots, meanwhile, are infecting networks and influencing national elections. Elon Musk, Stephen Hawking, Sam Harris, and many other leading AI researchers have sounded the alarm: Unchecked, they say, AI may progress beyond our control and pose significant dangers to society.

Back in the real world, of course, the dangers are more mundane. Those “significant dangers to society” are more financial.

Could new research on A.I. and white-collar jobs finally bring about a strong policy response?The New Yorker
Webb then analyzed A.I. patent filings and found them using verbs such as “recognize,” “detect,” “control,” “determine,” and “classify,” and nouns like “patterns,” “images,” and “abnormalities.” The jobs that appear to face intrusion by these newer patents are different from the more manual jobs that were affected by industrial robots: intelligent machines may, for example, take on more tasks currently conducted by physicians, such as detecting cancer, making prognoses, and interpreting the results of retinal scans, as well as those of office workers that involve making determinations based on data, such as detecting fraud or investigating insurance claims. People with bachelor’s degrees might be more exposed to the effects of the new technologies than other educational groups, as might those with higher incomes. The findings suggest that nurses, doctors, managers, accountants, financial advisers, computer programmers, and salespeople might see significant shifts in their work. Occupations that require high levels of interpersonal skill seem most insulated.

Update 31/01/2020

Found another article about those biological robots, above, which serves as a great counter-point to all these wildly optimistic Boston Dynamics announcements.

Robots don’t have to be so embarrassingThe Outline
These stuff-ups are endlessly amusing to me. I don’t want to mock the engineers who pour thousands of hours into building novelty dogs made of bits of broken toasters, or even the vertiginously arrogant scientists who thought they could simulate the human brain inside a decade. (Inside a decade! I mean, my god!) Well, okay, maybe I do want to mock them. Is it a crime to enjoy watching our culture’s systematic over-investment in digital Whiggery get written down in value time and time again? […]

What these doomed overreaches represent is a failure to grasp the limits of human knowledge. We don’t have a comprehensive idea of how the brain works. There is no solid agreement on what consciousness really “is.” Is it divine? Is it matter? Can you smoke it? Do these questions even make sense? We don’t know the purpose of sleep. We don’t know what dreams are for. Sexual dimorphism in the brain remains a mystery. Are you picking up a pattern here? Even the seemingly quotidian mechanical abilities of the human body — running, standing, gripping, and so on — are not understood with the scientific precision that you might expect. How can you make a convincing replica of something if you don’t even know what it is to begin with? We are cosmic toddlers waddling around in daddy’s shoes, pretending to “work at the office” by scribbling on the walls in crayon, and then wondering where our paychecks are.

Stylish maps of bureaucracy

Finding where you fit in a large organisation isn’t easy sometimes. It can be difficult to see the whole picture. These very stylish organisation charts might be just the ticket.

Organograms | UK GovernmentPeter Cook
Organograms (also known as org charts) show the structure of organisations – in our case UK Government departments. The gallery presents an overview of a number of government departments (from May 2014). Click a department to explore it in more detail.

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I love the moiré effects when you zoom in on some of them. (Via FlowingData)

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I couldn’t help but think of Sam Lowry’s labyrinthine struggles with Brazil‘s Ministry of Information, when I saw these sprawling government department charts. So it was nice to read, this morning, about Jonathan Pryce’s Oscar nomination—best newcomer, indeed.

An unsettling self-portrait

Another reminder of what Van Gogh went through.

Not a fake: Van Gogh self-portrait is his only work painted while suffering psychosis, experts sayThe Art Newspaper
Van Tilborgh believes that the self-portrait was painted in late August 1889, in the asylum just outside Saint-Rémy: “The somewhat unusual type of canvas, the pigments, the sombre palette and the brushwork are all in keeping with his output in the late summer and autumn of that year.”

The painting is now linked to a letter in which Van Gogh wrote that he had made a self-portrait which was “an attempt from when I was ill”. The artist had suffered a severe mental attack at the asylum in mid July 1889, when he tried to swallow paints, but by 22 August he had recovered sufficiently to write to his brother Theo, asking that he be allowed access to his painting materials. Van Tilborgh argues that the artist made the self-portrait a few days later, before he suffered a minor setback and was ill for a short period at the beginning of September.

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It’s an arresting image, though I think the version of it that appears in this article, being somewhat darker, feels much deeper.