Coffee to the rescue

It’s Monday, so put the kettle on.

How coffee protects the brain
Scientists have now proved that drinking certain types of coffee can be beneficial to brain health, but how does this popular brew support cognitive function? A new study identifies some of the mechanisms that allow coffee to keep mental decline at bay.

Yes, I know this is one of those health pendulum stories — coffee/bacon/red wine is good for you one week, bad for you the next — but I’m happy to think of all this coffee I’m drinking as an investment for my future.

How to fix* broken Brexit

With humour.

Instead of this …

Draft Agreement on the withdrawal of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland from the European Union and the European Atomic Energy Community, as agreed at negotiators’ level on 14 November 2018 [pdf]

… and this …

Brexit analysis: Why Theresa May’s deal may be doomed
Somehow, all this would be bought at no cost. British citizens would continue to enjoy frictionless travel to the E.U; goods and services would still cross borders with hyperloop-y speed and ease. But immigrants would find that Britain’s international entry points had become a veritable eye of the needle. Above all, we were told that all our E.U. contributions would now get fed straight into the National Health Service […] It’s not just that these assertions were unfounded. They showed a fundamental overestimation of Britain’s power and prestige, of its ability to bend other states to its will. The E.U. has not as yet capitulated to a single meaningful demand from a British government that has frequently looked weak and confused.

… read this.

And instead of this …

Brexit deal resignations are more bad news for the British pound
Today’s resignations have been far worse for the pound. About an hour after Raab, Work and Pensions Secretary Esther McVey resigned, too. There have been four more junior-level resignations on top of that, all before lunch.

… read this.

(* Ok, not so much ‘fix’ as ‘get through’.)

Soviet photography

Following on nicely from yesterday’s post about Soviet balalaika music, I’ve just come across a link to a lot of Soviet photography.

Download 437 issues of Soviet Photo Magazine, the Soviet Union’s historic photography journal (1926-1991)
The early years of the Soviet Union roiled with internal tensions, intrigues, and ideological warfare, and the new empire’s art reflected its uneasy heterodoxy. Formalists, Futurists, Suprematists, Constructivists, and other schools mingled, published journals, critiqued and reviewed each other’s work, and like modernists elsewhere in the world, experimented with every possible medium, including those just coming into their own at the beginning of the 20th century, like film and photography.

These two mediums, along with radio, also happened to serve as the primary means of propagandizing Soviet citizens and carrying the messages of the Party in ways everyone could understand. And like much of the rest of the world, photography engendered its own consumer culture.

Out of these competing impulses came Soviet Photo (Sovetskoe foto), a monthly photography magazine.

It’s interesting to note how the politics of the country affected the art form, and the magazine.

The aesthetic purges under Stalin—in which artists and writers one after another fell victim to charges of elitism and obscurantism—also played out in the pages of Soviet Photo. “Even before Socialist Realism was decreed to be the official style of the Soviet Union in 1934,” Nouril writes, “the works of avant-garde photographers,” including Rodchenko, “were denounced as formalist (implying that they reflected a foreign and elitist style).” Soviet Photo boycotted Rodchenko’s work in 1928 and “throughout the 1930s this state-sanctioned journal became increasingly conservative,” emphasizing “content over form.”

soviet-photography-1

You can browse 437 complete issues of ‘Soviet Photo’ magazine online
Dig deep enough, and you’ll find some really interesting (and surprisingly familiar) things in there. From standard street photography, to architecture, rooftopping, and (unfortunately) train track portraits, to conflict photography, even some pretty amazing photojournalism, and gear/equipment ads.

soviet-photography-2

Had the magazine continued to the year 2000 (collapse of the Union notwithstanding), the secret photographer Masha Ivashintsova might have been included.

Tetris: blocks and balalaikas

Recently, I accepted defeat and replaced my Windows phone with an Android one. Going through Google’s app store I came across Tetris (the older one, not the trippy new one), a game I’ve not played in ages. I was never any good at it, but that’s not the point, I guess.

Why are humans suddenly getting better at Tetris
As John Green explains in this video, a few people are actually getting much better at the NES version of Tetris than anyone was back in the 90s. One of the reasons for this is that a smaller dedicated group working together can be more effective than a massive group of people working alone on a problem.

The video ends on an uplifting note about the state of the internet – don’t worry about the dire state of the internet, just try to improve your internet. A new take on the ‘be the change you wish to see’ idea.

Study: Tetris is a great distraction for easing an anxious mind
The best distracting activities are those that can induce a sense of “flow … It’s something that fully captures your attention and engages you,” says Sweeny. “I often describe it as the kind of thing you can’t start doing if you only have ten minutes, because you know you’ll lose track of time.” Video games are perfect for this, provided they hit that sweet spot of being easy enough to learn while still pushing the skill level of the player, without becoming so challenging that the player becomes frustrated.

The psychology of Tetris
Tetris holds our attention by continually creating unfinished tasks. Each action in the game allows us to solve part of the puzzle, filling up a row or rows completely so that they disappear, but is also just as likely to create new, unfinished work. A chain of these partial-solutions and newly triggered unsolved tasks can easily stretch to hours, each moment full of the same kind of satisfaction as scratching an itch.

I like the line in that article about the game taking advantage of the mind’s basic pleasure in tidying up.

How Tetris became the world’s favourite computer game
With the iron curtain still firmly in place, Moscow did not have anything resembling a computer industry and software was not for sale. “The idea of receiving money for the programme seemed really strange and ridiculous at that time. So somehow Tetris was copied from my computer and from floppy disk to floppy disk – it just spread like wildfire,” says Mr Pajitnov.

These days, we can’t imagine anything spreading quickly that has to use floppy disks to get around, but you get the idea.

Tetris was passed between computer users the length and breadth of the Soviet Union and before long the government noticed that it had begun affecting productivity in the workplace. In order to combat the problem they created an early form of spyware, which was installed on state computers to corrupt both Tetris and the floppy disk it originated from the moment the game was opened.

Well, that’s one way to manage your workforce.

But never mind all that, let’s talk about the music!

Korobeiniki
“Korobeiniki” is a nineteenth-century Russian folk song that tells the story of a meeting between a peddler and a girl, describing their hajggling over goods in a veiled metaphor for courtship. Outside Russia, “Korobeiniki” is widely known as the Tetris theme (titled “A-Type” in the game), from its appearance in Nintendo’s 1989 version of the game.

tetris-sounding-good-1

Ready to follow along?

Korobeiniki – Piano Tutorial

Now let’s bring on the balalaikas and sing along with the Red Army Choir.

Red Army Choir – Korobushka song (Korobeiniki)

That clip led me to this one, with some crazy fingerpicking skills on show.

Red Army Ensemble – Kamarinskaya

Here’s another version of that piece, Kamarinskaya, from the Osipov Orchestra in 1953.

“Kamarinskaya” – The Osipov Orchestra of the Russian Folk Instruments (1953)

A version of that, by the same orchestra I think, makes an appearance on the soundtrack to The Grand Budapest Hotel, and is immediately followed by an arrangement of Moonshine, or Светит месяц – another corker.

Here’s a version featuring Mark Knopfler (possibly).

Балалайка Михаил Рожков Светит месяц

And here’s an orchestral version, though without the chorus that’s used in Alexandre Desplat’s arrangement.

В Андреев “Светит месяц” / АОРНИ имени Н.Некрасова

I wonder if Wes Anderson was a fan of Tetris.

Locking words in

After reading recent articles about the state of the web, you could be forgiven for wanting to turn back to a more reliable and trustworthy method of communication, like letter writing. But have you heard of letterlocking?

Before envelopes, people protected messages with letterlocking
Around 2 A.M. on February 8, 1587, Mary Queen of Scots penned a letter to her brother-in-law, King Henri III of France. It would be her last. Six hours later, she was beheaded for treason by order of her cousin, Elizabeth I of England. The letter has since become one of Scotland’s most beloved artifacts, the handwritten pages offering a poignant glimpse of a monarch grappling with her impending execution.

But it’s not the words that fascinate Jana Dambrogio, the Thomas F. Peterson conservator at MIT Libraries. For more than a decade, Dambrogio has been studying “letterlocking,” the various systems of folds, slits, and wax seals that protected written communication before the invention of the mass-produced envelope. To guard her final missive from prying eyes, the queen used a “butterfly lock”—one of hundreds of techniques catalogued by Dambrogio, collaborator Daniel Starza Smith, and their research team in a fast-growing dictionary of letterlocking.

And here’s a demonstration of that locking method.

Letterlocking: Mary Queen of Scots last letter, a butterfly lock, England (1587)
Modelled after images of Mary Queen of Scots’ letter to her brother-in-law Henri III, King of France in the National Library of Scotland.

It looks very fiddly. I wonder if, the night before her execution, her hands would have been steady enough to do this herself. It’s a remarkable document, though.

The last letter of Mary Queen of Scots
Sire, my brother-in-law, having by God’s will, for my sins I think, thrown myself into the power of the Queen my cousin, at whose hands I have suffered much for almost twenty years, I have finally been condemned to death by her and her Estates. I have asked for my papers, which they have taken away, in order that I might make my will, but I have been unable to recover anything of use to me, or even get leave either to make my will freely or to have my body conveyed after my death, as I would wish, to your kingdom where I had the honour to be queen, your sister and old ally.

Online ‘truth decay’

Fake news is old news, but I came across a new phrase today — well, new to me, anyway.

You thought fake news was bad? Deep fakes are where truth goes to die
Citron, along with her colleague Bobby Chesney, began working on a report outlining the extent of the potential danger. As well as considering the threat to privacy and national security, both scholars became increasingly concerned that the proliferation of deep fakes could catastrophically erode trust between different factions of society in an already polarized political climate.

In particular, they could foresee deep fakes being exploited by purveyors of “fake news”. Anyone with access to this technology – from state-sanctioned propagandists to trolls – would be able to skew information, manipulate beliefs, and in so doing, push ideologically opposed online communities deeper into their own subjective realities.

“The marketplace of ideas already suffers from truth decay as our networked information environment interacts in toxic ways with our cognitive biases,” the report reads. “Deep fakes will exacerbate this problem significantly.”

Maybe I need to stop reading about fake news, it’s not good for my blood pressure. Just a couple more, then I’ll stop.

After murder and violence, here’s how WhatsApp will fight fake news
WhatsApp has announced it is giving 20 different research groups $50,000 to help it understand the ways that rumours and fake news spread on its platform. The groups are based around the world and will be responsible for producing reports on how the messaging app has impacted certain regions.

The range of areas that are being studied highlight the scale of misinformation that WhatsApp faces. One set of researchers from the UK and US are set to see how misinformation can lead to disease outbreaks in elderly people, one will look at how information was shared on WhatsApp in the 2018 Brazilian elections and another is examining how posts can go viral on the messaging service.

Inside the British Army’s secret information warfare machine
This new warfare poses a problem that neither the 77th Brigade, the military, or any democratic state has come close to answering yet. It is easy to work out how to deceive foreign publics, but far, far harder to know how to protect our own. Whether it is Russia’s involvement in the US elections, over Brexit, during the novichok poisoning or the dozens of other instances that we already know about, the cases are piling up. In information warfare, offence beats defence almost by design. It’s far easier to put out lies than convince everyone that they’re lies. Disinformation is cheap; debunking it is expensive and difficult.

Even worse, this kind of warfare benefits authoritarian states more than liberal democratic ones. For states and militaries, manipulating the internet is trivially cheap and easy to do. The limiting factor isn’t technical, it’s legal. And whatever the overreaches of Western intelligence, they still do operate in legal environments that tend to more greatly constrain where, and how widely, information warfare can be deployed. China and Russia have no such legal hindrances.

Tim’s hippie manifesto

Some less than positive reaction from The Register and others to Tim Berners-Lee’s latest campaign to save the web from itself. To describe it as a hippie manifesto sounds a little harsh but, as I said before, I can’t see this making much difference unless Facebook and Google agree to give up power, money etc.

Web Foundation launches internet hippie manifesto: ‘We’ve lost control of our data, it is being used against us’
It identifies the same problems that everyone and their dog has been writing about for years: there is a digital divide; internet access can be expensive; an entire industry has grown up selling your personal data; governments abuse the internet sometimes; people use the internet to do unpleasant things like bully and harass people; net neutrality’s a thing.

It has some charts and stats. But basically it reads like a High School final project on the problems of the internet. Competent but not consequential. […]

But simply saying companies shouldn’t make money from personal data and governments shouldn’t turn off the internet is not going to achieve a single thing. There needs to be clear plan of attack, recognition of pain points for companies, a broad and well-organized campaign to engage and rally people.

Berners-Lee takes flak for ‘hippie manifesto’ that only Google and Facebook could love
Open-source advocate Rafael Laguna, co-founder of Open-Xchange, is suspicious that Google and Facebook – the companies most under fire for privacy and other human rights abuses – were first to voice their support for the Greatest Living Briton’s declaration. “They are the two outstanding creators of the problems proclaimed in Tim’s paper,” Laguna notes. […]

Laguna told us: “As we have seen before with ‘Privacy Shield’, I suspect this move will be used as ‘proof’ of their reputability – but I fail to see how Google and Facebook will genuinely adhere to the requirements laid out in the initiative. The only result I can see is that it gets watered down, that it remains a lip service and, worst case, the whole thing loses credibility.”

TV’s golden, black and white age

A TV Licensing report out recently revealed that there are still 7,000 households watching TV in black and white. You might wonder why. Stuart Jeffries from the Guardian has a theory.

Black and white TVs are a lo-fi rebuke to a world gone wrong
One champion of black and white, TV historian Jeffrey Borinsky, asked rhetorically yesterday: “Who wants all this new-fangled 4K ultra HD, satellite dishes or a screen that’s bigger than your room when you can have glorious black and white TV?” Viewed thus, black and white TV is like craft beer, lo-fi reproof to a world gone wrong.

It’s a good point. Technological “progress” often just gives us more of what we don’t want. Endless choice is misery-making rather than liberating. No wonder the 7,000 rebel against colour TV’s gimcrack lunacy of red buttons; endless channels screening nothing worth watching; the binge-based death-in-life of modern viewing, and the whole lie that having access all the time to everything will make us happy rather than confused and sad.

The report doesn’t break down the demographics of those 7,000 into lavishly bearded, vinyl-collecting, folk-loving, vegan hipster devotees of the slow movement; but it’s my guess that this group is well represented.

I doubt it. Perhaps the sets (or their owners?) are just simply dying off. As the Guardian says elsewhere,

7,000 UK households still watching TV in black and white
Regular colour broadcasts began on BBC Two in July 1967 with the Wimbledon tennis tournament. The number of black and white licences issued each year has since been in steady decline since. In 2000, there were 212,000 black and white TV licences but by 2003 that number had shrunk to 93,000. By 2015, the number had dipped below 10,000.

I did remind me, though, of the old black and white portable I had in my student days. And specifically, of watching a strange little art film about television, starring solely the voice and face of the newsreader Richard Baker. I can’t find anything about it on the web now, or really remember much about it at all. Just a close up of his face, in grainy, flickery black and white (to me, anyway), intoning, “This is my voice. This is not my voice, merely a recording of my voice. This is my face. This is not my face, merely a recording of my face.” Or something.

Watching it on a rickety black and white portable TV set really brought home the artificiality of the medium: the people on your screen are not really there, they don’t actually exist as we imagine them too – it’s all mediation. I wasn’t so much watching television as looking at a site-specific installation which included a TV screen and a recording of one of the most trusted voices in Britain.

Richard Baker: The birth of TV news
“All I did in that first programme, at 7.30pm on 5 July 1954, was to announce, behind a filmed view of Nelson’s Column: Here is an illustrated summary of the news. It will be followed by the latest film of happenings at home and abroad.”

“We were not to be seen reading the news because it was feared we might sully the pure stream of truth with inappropriate facial expressions, or (unthinkably) turn the news into a personality performance.”

tvs-golden-black-white-age-1

A little robot round-up

I don’t know about you, but I find things to do with AI, robots and automation quite confusing. Will the impact of these technologies really be as widespread as envisaged by the futurists? And what will the consequences and implications really be? Is humanity at stake, even?

Here are a number of articles I’m working through, that will hopefully shed some light on it all. Let’s start with the robot uprising.

Social robots will become family members in the homes of the future
With fewer stay-at-home parents, social robots can serve as personalized practice partners to help with homework and reinforce what children have learned that day in school. Far beyond helping you find recipes and ordering groceries, they can be your personal sous-chef or even help you learn to cook. They can also act as personal health coaches to supplement nutrition and wellness programs recommended by doctors and specialists for an increasingly health-conscious population. As the number of aging-in-place boomers soars, social robots can provide a sense of companionship for retirees while also connecting seniors to the world and to their loved ones, as well as sending doctor-appointment and medication reminders.

Robots! A fantastic catalog of new species
IEEE Spectrum editor Erico Guizzo and colleagues have blown out their original Robots app into a fantastic catalog of 200 of today’s fantastic species of robots. They’re cleverly organized into fun categories like “Robots You Can Hug,” “Robots That Can Dance,” “Space Robots,” and “Factory Workers.” If they keep it updated, it’ll be very helpful for the robot uprising.

We need to have a very serious chat about Pepper’s pointless parliamentary pantomime
Had the Committee summoned a robotic arm, or a burger-flipping frame they would have wound up with a worse PR stunt but a better idea of the dangers and opportunities of the robot revolution.

robot-round-up-1

Robots can look very cute, but it’s the implications of those faceless boxes housing the AIs that will be more important, I think.

Computer says no: why making AIs fair, accountable and transparent is crucial
Most AIs are made by private companies who do not let outsiders see how they work. Moreover, many AIs employ such complex neural networks that even their designers cannot explain how they arrive at answers. The decisions are delivered from a “black box” and must essentially be taken on trust. That may not matter if the AI is recommending the next series of Game of Thrones. But the stakes are higher if the AI is driving a car, diagnosing illness, or holding sway over a person’s job or prison sentence.

Last month, the AI Now Institute at New York University, which researches the social impact of AI, urged public agencies responsible for criminal justice, healthcare, welfare and education, to ban black box AIs because their decisions cannot be explained.

Artificial intelligence has got some explaining to do
Most simply put, Explainable AI (also referred to as XAI) are artificial intelligence systems whose actions humans can understand. Historically, the most common approach to AI is the “black box” line of thinking: human input goes in, AI-made action comes out, and what happens in between can be studied, but never totally or accurately explained. Explainable AI might not be necessary for, say, understanding why Netflix or Amazon recommended that movie or that desk organizer for you (personally interesting, sure, but not necessary). But when it comes to deciphering answers about AI in fields like health care, personal finances, or the justice system, it becomes more important to understand an algorithm’s actions.

The only way is ethics.

Why teach drone pilots about ethics when it’s robots that will kill us?
For the most part, armies are keen to maintain that there will always be humans in charge when lethal decisions are taken. This is only partly window dressing. One automated system is dangerous only to its enemies; two are dangerous to each other, and out of anyone’s control. We have seen what happens on stock markets when automatic trading programs fall into a destructive pattern and cause “flash crashes”. In October 2016 the pound lost 6% of its value, with blame in part put down to algorithmic trading. If two hi-tech armies were in a standoff where hair-trigger algorithms faced each other on both sides, the potential for disaster might seem unlimited.

Nuclear war has been averted on at least one occasion by a heroic Russian officer overriding the judgment of computers that there was an incoming missile attack from the US. But he had 25 minutes to decide. Battlefield time is measured in seconds.

The Pentagon’s plans to program soldiers’ brains
DARPA has dreamed for decades of merging human beings and machines. Some years ago, when the prospect of mind-controlled weapons became a public-relations liability for the agency, officials resorted to characteristic ingenuity. They recast the stated purpose of their neurotechnology research to focus ostensibly on the narrow goal of healing injury and curing illness. The work wasn’t about weaponry or warfare, agency officials claimed. It was about therapy and health care. Who could object?

Let’s hope nothing goes wrong.

Machine learning confronts the elephant in the room
Then the researchers introduced something incongruous into the scene: an image of an elephant in semiprofile. The neural network started getting its pixels crossed. In some trials, the elephant led the neural network to misidentify the chair as a couch. In others, the system overlooked objects, like a row of books, that it had correctly detected in earlier trials. These errors occurred even when the elephant was far from the mistaken objects.

Snafus like those extrapolate in unsettling ways to autonomous driving. A computer can’t drive a car if it might go blind to a pedestrian just because a second earlier it passed a turkey on the side of the road.

So yes, things can go wrong. But AI and automation will all be good for jobs, right?

Artificial intelligence to create 58 million new jobs by 2022, says report
Machines and algorithms in the workplace are expected to create 133 million new roles, but cause 75 million jobs to be displaced by 2022 according to a new report from the World Economic Forum (WEF) called “The Future of Jobs 2018.” This means that the growth of artificial intelligence could create 58 million net new jobs in the next few years.

With this net positive job growth, there is expected to be a major shift in quality, location and permanency for the new roles. And companies are expected to expand the use of contractors doing specialized work and utilize remote staffing.

robot-round-up-2

AI may not be bad news for workers
Some jobs could be made a lot easier by AI. One example is lorry-driving. Some fear that truck drivers will be replaced by autonomous vehicles. But manoeuvring a lorry around busy streets is far harder than driving down the motorway. So the driver could switch into automatic mode (and get some rest) when outside the big cities, and take over the wheel once again when nearing the destination. The obvious analogy is with jetliners, where the pilots handle take-off and landing but turn on the computer to cruise at 35,000 feet. Using AI may prevent tired drivers from causing accidents.

Ok, yes, I can see that. But then it goes on…

And the report argues that AI can produce better decision-making by offering a contrarian opinion so that teams can avoid the danger of groupthink. A program could analyse e-mails and meeting transcripts and issue alerts when potentially false assumptions are being made (rather like the boy in the Hans Christian Andersen tale who notices that the Emperor has no clothes). Or it can warn a team when it is getting distracted from the task in hand.

Really? That’s quite a jump from automated driving. Having a system read everything a company’s employees write to look for poor assumptions? I cannot see that happening. More over-selling.

But what else could AI do?

AI lie detector tests to get trial run at EU airports
Fliers will be asked a series of travel-related questions by a virtual border guard avatar, and artificial intelligence will monitor their faces to assess whether they are lying. The avatar will become “more skeptical” and change its tone of voice if it believes a person has lied, before referring suspect passengers to a human guard and allowing those believed to be honest to pass through, said Keeley Crockett of Manchester Metropolitan University in England, who was involved in the project.

AI anchors: Xinhua debuts digital doppelgangers for their journalists
The AI-powered news anchors, according to the outlet, will improve television reporting and be used to generate videos, especially for breaking news on its digital and social media platforms.

“I’m an English artificial intelligence anchor,” Zhang’s digital doppelganger said in introduction during his first news telecast, blinking his eyes and raising his eyebrows throughout the video. “This is my very first day in Xinhua News Agency … I will work tirelessly to keep you informed, as texts will be typed into my system uninterrupted.”

 

This is what the world’s first AI newsreader looks and sounds like [via the Guardian]

But let’s not get too carried away here. We’re talking about people’s jobs, their livelihoods.

The automation charade
Since the dawn of market society, owners and bosses have revelled in telling workers they were replaceable. Robots lend this centuries-old dynamic a troubling new twist: employers threaten employees with the specter of machine competition, shirking responsibility for their avaricious disposition through opportunistic appeals to tech determinism. A “jobless future” is inevitable, we are told, an irresistible outgrowth of innovation, the livelihood-devouring price of progress. …

Though automation is presented as a neutral process, the straightforward consequence of technological progress, one needn’t look that closely to see that this is hardly the case. Automation is both a reality and an ideology, and thus also a weapon wielded against poor and working people who have the audacity to demand better treatment, or just the right to subsist.

That article goes on to introduce a new term to describe the overselling the workplace dynamic and the casualisation of low-skilled service work, “fauxtomation.”

robot-round-up-3

But maybe we should all loosen up, and stop being so serious.

Love in the time of AI: meet the people falling for scripted robots
“Obviously as the technology gets better and the interactivity increases we’re going to be able to form closer connections to characters in games,” Reed said. “They will operate with greater flexibility and ultimately seem more lifelike and easier to connect to.”

But for Wild Rose and many of the other dating sims enthusiasts I spoke to, making the characters more “human” wasn’t particularly exciting or even desired. Saeran didn’t need to be real for her to care about him.

The HAL 9000 Christmas ornament
Fans of “2001: A Space Odyssey” will want to bring home this special Christmas ornament that celebrates 50 years of the science-fiction masterpiece. Press the button to see the ornament light up as HAL says several memorable phrases.

robot-round-up-5

NASA’s impossible images

You know those Golden Records NASA sent into space in the 70s, on the Voyager spacecrafts? They contained images, music and sounds from Earth, as well as greetings in 55 languages. If any alien were to come across these disks, accessing their contents is far from straightforward.

Decoding images from the Golden Record
You might think that the images were included in some printed or digital form, such as a .jpeg or .tiff. But back in 1977, there was no technology available to put images on analog disks. Voyager’s computer systems could only hold 69 kilobytes of information, barely enough for one image, let alone 115. So NASA invented a way to include image data on the LPs.

By projecting images onto a screen, recording them with a television camera, and then turning those video signals into audio waveforms, the images could be properly pressed onto the records. The reversal process — turning that image data back into images — is what any extraterrestrial (or curious human) would have to figure out how to do.

nasas-impossible-images-2

Nevermind the contents of these records, the instructions alone will have the aliens scratching their heads. If they have heads, of course.

nasas-impossible-images-3

Bon voyage

My son flies to Japan next week, on a school science trip, via Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport. Here are a couple of links to send him on his way.

Schiphol Clock
Time is important at an airport, with thousands of people running back and forth trying to get their plane on time. This is why most airports are full of clocks everywhere, helping to guide harried travelers. Schiphol Airport in the Netherlands is no exception, but it offers a twist: a giant clock that appears as if a man is busy painting it real time, minute by minute.

The painter is actually a 12-hour-long recording, that gives a convincing illusion that a human is standing inside the translucent clock, busy at work as the hands go around. This creative timepiece is the latest work of Maarten Baas, a well-known Dutch artist and designer that has a series of similar live clock recordings.

Schipol Clock

A 12 hour long recording! There’s more on this remarkable clock on Maarten Baas’s website. It’ll be interesting to see if it’s still there.

And then, when my boy gets to Japan:

Four weird unexpected things to love about Japan
Washlets are one of the unexpected delights of going to Japan. The Japanese washlet is a technological marvel in that it cleans and dries your flanks, underside and phalanges after you’ve taken a shit, without you having to step foot in a shower.

What happens after your experience with the washlet is a feeling of unparalleled freshness, cleanliness and wellness unlike anything else you’ve ever experienced before. In the West we have toilets that flush but that’s about it. It’s a toilet made for a Jurassic reptile not a highly evolved human being.

homer-washlet

Cyriak’s back from the dead

I didn’t spot this in time for Halloween, but a new animation from Cyriak has jumped out at us. I guess it’s his 2018 take on the Skeleton Dance from 1929 I mentioned earlier. Compare and contrast below!

RIP

Silly Symphony – the skeleton dance 1929 disney short

I wonder what will the next version of the scary skeleton dance video be like, in 2107.

Watching paint fly

In a manner reminiscent of Loving Vincent, Em Cooper has created a wonderful short animation for a Berghaus ad campaign.

Em Cooper is a live-action filmmaker working with oil paint
“I was actually on a walk in Cornwall when the detail of how I would make it came into my mind. I wanted every transformation to feel natural and effortless — the transitions working like silent slippages of paint with the brushstrokes loosening just a touch and then reforming quietly into the next moment. It is painstaking and labour-intensive work: I hand paint every single frame individually, but the results are magical, and I think viewers can sense the time and effort that has gone into it.”

Time to get out

watching-paint-fly-2

watching-paint-fly-3

A plan to reduce (some) teacher workload

Following on from the Ofsted Chief Inspector’s comments about teachers being ‘reduced to data managers’, the Education Secretary has written to all schools this week, reiterating his commitment to “clamp down on teachers’ workload.” Here’s the DfE’s press release.

DfE: More support for school leaders to tackle workload
Secretary of State for Education Damian Hinds said: “Many teachers are having to work way too many hours each week on unnecessary tasks, including excessive time spent on marking and data analysis. I want to make sure teachers are teaching, not putting data into spreadsheets. That’s why I am stopping my department asking for data other than in the school’s existing format.

“I am united with the unions and Ofsted in wanting teachers to do less admin. I have a straightforward message to head teachers who want their staff to cut right down on collecting data to be able to devote energies to teaching: I will support you. Frequent data drops and excessive monitoring of a child’s progress are not required either by Ofsted or by the DfE.”

Here’s a link to the Teacher Workload Advisory Group report and government response.

It will be interesting to see how this plays out and what, if anything, changes. Perhaps less data collection, rather than less data analysis: I can see schools making judgements about students’ progress two or three times a year, instead of three or four, but will they really stop analysing progress by pupil premium, SEN, ethnicity, gender and so on and so on? Perhaps this is aimed at classroom teachers, rather than subject leaders, data managers and SLT data leads.

Can Tim Berners-Lee fix what he started?

We’re growing increasingly disillusioned with the web, but the guy behind it has a plan — a “Contract for the Web” that he hopes will set out our rights and freedoms on the internet.

Tim Berners-Lee launches campaign to save the web from abuse
“Humanity connected by technology on the web is functioning in a dystopian way. We have online abuse, prejudice, bias, polarisation, fake news, there are lots of ways in which it is broken. This is a contract to make the web one which serves humanity, science, knowledge and democracy,” he said.

For it to work, the big tech companies need to be behind it. No problem, right?

One of the early signatories to the contract, Facebook, has been fined by the Information Commissioner’s Office for its part in the Cambridge Analytica scandal; has faced threats from the EU for taking too long to remove extremist content; and has been sued for allowing advertisers to target housing ads only at white people. The firm, which has appointed the former deputy prime minister, Nick Clegg, to lead its PR operation, did not respond to a request for comment.

Another early signatory, Google, is reportedly developing a censored version of its search engine for the Chinese market. “If you sign up to the principles, you can’t do censorship,” said Berners-Lee. “Will this be enough to make search engines push back? Will it be persuasive enough for the Chinese government to be more open? I can’t predict whether that will happen,” he said. Google did not respond to a request for comment.

Hmm. I can’t see this making much difference unless Facebook and Google agree to– what, make less money?

“I was devastated”: Tim Berners-Lee, the man who created the World Wide Web, has some regrets
“We demonstrated that the Web had failed instead of served humanity, as it was supposed to have done, and failed in many places,” he told me. The increasing centralization of the Web, he says, has “ended up producing—with no deliberate action of the people who designed the platform—a large-scale emergent phenomenon which is anti-human.”

tim-1

“Tim and Vint made the system so that there could be many players that didn’t have an advantage over each other.” Berners-Lee, too, remembers the quixotism of the era. “The spirit there was very decentralized. The individual was incredibly empowered. It was all based on there being no central authority that you had to go to to ask permission,” he said. “That feeling of individual control, that empowerment, is something we’ve lost.”

That’s it in a nutshell, for me. The web just isn’t the same as it was at the beginning.

The power of the Web wasn’t taken or stolen. We, collectively, by the billions, gave it away with every signed user agreement and intimate moment shared with technology. Facebook, Google, and Amazon now monopolize almost everything that happens online, from what we buy to the news we read to who we like. Along with a handful of powerful government agencies, they are able to monitor, manipulate, and spy in once unimaginable ways.

Tim Wu is a law professor and ‘influential tech thinker’. Here’s his take on what went wrong.

Tim Wu: ‘The internet is like the classic story of the party that went sour’
Looking back at the 00s, the great mistake of the web’s idealists was a near-total failure to create institutions designed to preserve that which was good about the web (its openness, its room for a diversity of voices and its earnest amateurism), and to ward off that which was bad (the trolling, the clickbait, the demands of excessive and intrusive advertising, the security breaches). There was too much faith that everything would take care of itself – that “netizens” were different, that the culture of the web was intrinsically better. Unfortunately, that excessive faith in web culture left a void, one that became filled by the lowest forms of human conduct and the basest norms of commerce. It really was just like the classic story of the party that went sour.

The Guardian certainly likes to report on versions of this story, but only in November and March, it seems.

Tech giants may have to be broken up, says Tim Berners-Lee
Web inventor says Silicon Valley firms have too much clout and ‘optimism has cracked’ [November 2018]

Tim Berners-Lee: we must regulate tech firms to prevent ‘weaponised’ web
The inventor of the world wide web warns over concentration of power among a few companies ‘controlling which ideas are shared’ [March 2018]

Tim Berners-Lee on the future of the web: ‘The system is failing’
The inventor of the world wide web remains an optimist but sees a ‘nasty wind’ blowing amid concerns over advertising, net neutrality and fake news [November 2017]

Tim Berners-Lee: I invented the web. Here are three things we need to change to save it
It has taken all of us to build the web we have, and now it is up to all of us to build the web we want – for everyone [March 2017]

Lines of flight

Spanish photographer Xavi Bou has created some incredible images of birds in flight, layering thousands of shots to capture their movements and patterns.

Unseen movements: multi-shot photography captures the complex trails of birds
Bou’s ‘Ornitographies’ series arises from his interest in “questioning the limits of human perception,” combining simple observation of bird behavior from the ground with photography to see what our eyes can’t show us. He takes inspiration from chronophotography, a Victorian technique capturing movement in a series of frames for the purpose of scientific study. Bou’s focus on the birds is less about science and more about the grace of their movements and their unintentional creativity.

lines-of-flight-2

lines-of-flight-3

These are such wonderful pictures. It’s a shame, though, that we’ll never see anything like this with our own eyes. Mumurations might come close, I guess.

lines-of-flight-4

There are many more on his project website.

lines-of-flight-5.jpg

Are we doing the right thing?

As a parent of teenagers, I worry about this topic a lot.

What do we actually know about the risks of screen time and digital media?
The lumping of everything digital into a monolith is a framing that makes Oxford Internet Institute psychologist Andrew Przybylski groan. “We don’t talk about food time,” he points out. “We don’t talk about paper time. But we do talk about screen time.” […]

The new series of papers includes a look at childhood screen use and ADHD, the effects of media multitasking on attention, and the link between violent video games and aggression. The separate papers are a good reminder that these are really separate issues; even if screen time ends up being problematic in one area, it doesn’t mean it can’t have a positive effect in another.

Nothing’s ever straightfoward, is it? Like its conclusion, for instance.

So, is digital media a concern for developing minds? There’s no simple answer, in part because the uses of media are too varied for the question to really be coherent. And, while some research results seem robust, the catalogue of open questions is dizzying. Answering some of those questions needs not just a leap in research quality, but, argues Przybylski, a reframing of the question away from the way we think about tobacco and toward the way we think about information: “What are the most effective strategies parents can employ to empower young people to be proactive and critical users of technology?”

Others have firmly made up their minds, however.

A dark consensus about screens and kids begins to emerge in Silicon Valley
For longtime tech leaders, watching how the tools they built affect their children has felt like a reckoning on their life and work. Among those is Chris Anderson, the former editor of Wired and now the chief executive of a robotics and drone company. He is also the founder of GeekDad.com. “On the scale between candy and crack cocaine, it’s closer to crack cocaine,” Mr. Anderson said of screens.

Technologists building these products and writers observing the tech revolution were naïve, he said. “We thought we could control it,” Mr. Anderson said. “And this is beyond our power to control. This is going straight to the pleasure centers of the developing brain. This is beyond our capacity as regular parents to understand.”

Paintings, ridiculous and sublime

The art world is such a strange place.

Artist ‘astounded’ to see his Trump painting hung in the White House
Thomas knew Trump had received the painting as a gift – from a Republican congressman who was already a fan of the artist – because the president had recently called to congratulate him. But he only found out the painting had been hung in the White House – close to the Oval Office – when it popped up as a backdrop during a TV interview broadcast on Sunday evening.

paintings-sublime-ridiculous-1

We’re ‘astounded’ too – why would anyone paint such a horrible thing, even with its incredibly subtle feminist message? Where are the Old Masters when you need them?

Ah, here’s one. I think. Remember that incredibly expensive Da Vinci painting I mentioned earlier, the one with its own instagram account? Well, it looks a little different now to when it was sold for nearly half a billion dollars.

The Da Vinci mystery: why is his $450m masterpiece really being kept under wraps?
It was Martin Clayton, curator of Leonardo’s drawings at the Royal Library in Windsor Castle, who suggested I check out Campbell’s post and drew my attention to the startling differences between the painting after it was cleaned and its appearance now. “Photographs seem to show that, before it was touched up, it was all Leonardo,” he says. “They show the painting mid-restoration – and it looks as if the subsequent retouching has obscured the quality of the face.” Clayton is not questioning the painting’s authenticity. He’s suggesting that a very pure Leonardo has been partly “obscured”.

paintings-sublime-ridiculous-3

This is how it was described in 2011. Not too flatteringly.

Leonardo da Vinci at the National Gallery – the greatest show of the year?
For a long time it was assumed that Leonardo had painted a Saviour of the World, or Salvator Mundi, but that the painting was lost, and all that survived were later engravings and dubious copies, including the newly restored head of Christ here. New research published this summer has now identified this as an authentic Leonardo. Or at least some of it. Maybe. What a difficult painting this is to like, let alone to be affected by. Jesus has the glazed look of someone stoned. You can imagine the raised fingers holding a spliff. Once imagined, the image won’t go away.

That Guardian article links to this one from the Mail.

Leonardo Da Vinci: Is long-lost £120m Salvator Mundi painting authentic?
A person close to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York who asked not to be identified said: ‘The painting was forgotten for years. When it turned up at auction, Simon thought it was worth taking a gamble. It had been heavily overpainted, which makes it look like a copy. It was a wreck, dark and gloomy. It had been cleaned many times in the past by people who didn’t know better. Once a restorer put artificial resin on it, which had turned grey and had to be removed painstakingly. When they took off the overpaint, what was revealed was the original paint. You saw incredibly delicate painting. All agree it was painted by Leonardo.’

I hate linking to the Mail, but I felt I must because of these two images on that article. What a journey that painting’s been on.

paintings-sublime-ridiculous-2

A modern take on spirit photography

Those spirit photographs I mentioned just after Halloween? It seems AI is having a go at those, too.

An artificial intelligence populated these photos with glitchy humanoid ghosts
Two of the MIT researchers behind the provocative Deep Angel project, an algorithm that digitally erases objects from photos, have now delivered a strange and beautiful system to “conjure phantasms into being.” According to the project developers Matt Groh and Ziv Epstein, the phantasmagoric AI Spirits manifested by their code are meant to “commemorate those missing via algorithmic omission.”

modern-spirit-photography