When phones were fun

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is there a vaccine for ‘meh’?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Don’t be misinformed

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

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

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

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

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

A new breed of robots?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Van Gogh, his sisters and the NFTs

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

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

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

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

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

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

And there were other important women in his life too.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nothing lasts forever #2

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

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

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

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

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

What’s in a name? #11

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

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

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

Big bird’s back

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

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

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

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

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

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

Being an artist these days

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

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

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

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

But what if?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.”