Tag Archives: art

Things July 2017: Archive Adventures – part 1

In November, Things will be 10 years old. Since the beginning, I’ve collected an archive of interesting things, and at various intervals then created Things out of that archive. I tend to collect slightly more things than I publish, so the archive has grown. Rather than cull it, I’m going to just put them all out in two big catch-up editions. In this edition: Stories, Technology, Imagery, and all the Puzzles. This is going to be intense!

This Just In

Before I get to the archive, a couple of recent things.

Damien Henry’s video for Steve Reich’s “Music for 18 Musicians” makes excellent use of machine learning for art. Using video shot from a moving train, an algorithm learns how to predict what the next frame will look like. Every 20s into the video the amount of learning used increases. The result is fascinating, and perfectly complements the music. You can skip through the video to get an idea of the effect, but it’s best played in full!

There is an awkward vein of humour in which comedians interview (often) unsuspecting subject-matter experts in a non-serious manner (Philomena Cunk interviewing Brian Cox is one I don’t mind so much). Superficially, Werner Herzog sometimes takes a similar approach in his documentaries (noted in Things 118 in 2012, “Please describe an encounter with a squirrel”), but there is a hidden earnestness behind his questions. If you’ve never seen any of his documentaries, this excellent short clip on penguins shows you what you’re missing.

Stories

I think via Richard L, here’s an interesting piece on Plots not involving conflict.

In some stories/fables/myths the inciting incident or key point of drama is a character attempting to do something different to normal. In old stories, the character often fails and is punished, the moral being “know your place” (for example, the crow that tries to sing and in so doing drops a piece of cheese). In more modern stories, the character often succeeds and is rewarded. Is that generalisation true though? And what does it mean? I was going to collect examples of each and try to see a pattern, but never ended up doing that, so I’ll just leave it here as an unfinished thought.

The Cosmology of Serialised Television is an essay by David Auerbach which categorises long-running TV fiction by cosmological universe types: Steady State, Expansionary, Big Crunch. I didn’t find it particularly useful in terms of identifying solutions to the intrinsic storytelling problems of the medium, or even uncovering hidden gems (just the expected “Everything is terrible except for The Wire and Babylon 5“).

Still, it’s a lot of fun to read and nod along to, with some great terse summaries along the way, for example:

“So comics evolved by directing creative effort away from any moments of quality and toward large-scale creative bankruptcy”

See Maris Wicks’ 16-panel summary of Kitty Pride’s relationship with Colossus (penultimate comic in this post) for a great example of this.

Choose Your Own Adventure

One of my favourite kind of stories is any subversion of the “Choose your own adventure” format. Previously on Things I’ve linked to Luke Surl’s perfectly terse ‘Free Will‘ page. As an implied CYOA, this previously-linked Beaver and Steve comic also remains a classic.

The “Prog 2012″ issue of 2000AD featured a story called “Choose your own Xmas”, and subverts the format while also shattering the 4th wall. It’s completely brilliant but isn’t online so you’ll just have to trust me and buy or borrow it.

Viviane Schwarz also subverted the format beautifully to convey what it’s like to suffer from anxiety.

Working within the extraordinarily tight constraints of having a fixed panel and art layout, Ryan North still found a way to make a CYOA version of Dinosaur Comics.

Save The Date (recommended to me by Tarim and Richard L, available for free on Windows, Mac or Linux) leverages the Ren’Py ‘visual novel’ engine in a rather clever way, and if you’re interested in games and storytelling, have 30-60 minutes to spare, and can tolerate an apparently high rate of failure, you should give it a go. It could perhaps have delivered its message more elegantly at the “end”.

Also via Richard L, Trapped In Time (pdf) is a nice twist on the traditional choose-your-own-adventure format that leverages the format in a few interesting ways I’ve not seen before, and actually works very well as a pdf!

And I should mention this just in – browser-based interactive time travel fiction, One Night in Skegness, by Matheson Marcault (Holly Gramazio and Sophie Sampson). More time travel, but in a more relaxed way.

Technology

Perhaps surprisingly, a link about technology that sat in my backlog for 5 years has become more interesting with age. John B recommended the article, in which Alexis Madrigal laments that (in 2012), internet startups are just retreading the same ground and no longer promise to revolutionise our lives. John also pointed out the comment below the article by Urgelt (comment link doesn’t seem to work, wait for comments to load, which they often don’t, then find ‘Urgelt’ in the page). Urgelt more precisely categorises startups into those that grow the economy vs those that just take market share from existing businesses, and the issue is that most startups are falling into the latter category.

Both make a very interesting read 5 years further on, leading one to ask: has anything changed since then? Two trends jump to mind.

The Gig-economy-style startups (Uber, Deliveroo, AirBnB) suggest major changes, but might not actually scale. Uber charges around half of the true cost, subsidising the rest in a bid to achieve market dominance when driverless cars arrive; Deliveroo similarly rides an unsustainable cost/charge balance for much the same reason; only AirBnB arguably doesn’t fit into this category as the market sets the price.

Crowdfunding seems to be a more impressive development. In 2012, Kickstarter was just turning the corner, and Patreon is now in the ascendancy. From artists/game-makers that I follow, these services genuinely seem to be creating viable revenue-streams that were not previously available, to the benefit of culture in general. For example, Captain Disillusion (referenced in Things March 2015 and Things 17) was never mass-market enough for ad-revenue to be viable, but now raises sufficient money from Patreon to work on his videos pretty much full time.

In more “modern life is terrible” news, here’s an article from Cracked in late 2013 that is really just an enjoyably angry and sarcastic rant about clickbait content-farming. I remember at the time thinking that, if nothing else, the clickbait headline style would have to change as humans will fall for anything once, or maybe a hundred times, but eventually will develop a sort of semiotic herd-immunity to these well-dressed empty promises. Four years on… have things changed? Well, if nothing else, Facebook is at least attempting to deprioritise these sorts of headlines; more specifically, headlines that withhold key information, and headlines that senselessly exaggerate the content.

Imagery and Comics

Wondermark on the thought-experiment of money having a continuity rather than just being an abstract quantity of value. Wet owlsInopportunely placed stickers. Bikes recreated (digitally) from drawings. The Door to Hell: “They set the hole on fire, expecting it to burn itself out of fuel in a few days. Now, some 42 years later, it is still burning”.

Puzzles/Questions

Collecting all unused puzzles here is probably too intense, but I quite like that about it, so I’m doing it anyway.

1) 2D News

Sci/tech news is often quite one-dimensional, revealing a single scientific discovery or technological advancement at a time. As a thought-experiment, try combining two or more such stories from the past year into something amazing. For example, advances in drone technology + advances in ‘invisibility cloaks’ = army of invisible drones. Finding loads of other planets + anything = awesome.

2) Put Put boat

A toy Put Put boat has an amazingly simple heat engine, which you may recognise from the film Ponyo. A candle heats a small boiler; some water in the boiler vaporises but cannot escape, generating pressure that pushes the remaining water out a pipe. The momentum of the water keeps it pushing out, leaving the inside of the boiler with low air pressure. As a result, water then rushes back in, and the process repeats. Water thus repeatedly enters and exits a pipe pointed out the back of the boat, which then travels forward in a halting manner. The puzzle is this: why does the boat actually move forward, instead of just moving back and forth, given water is just going in and out?

3) Bernoulli vs the Train Window

In a similar vein to the Put Put boat, we have the Bernoulli train window problem. Bernoulli’s principle roughly states that faster moving air acts as if it has lower pressure. The classic demonstration is to hold a piece of A4 paper by one end in front of your chin so it droops downwards away from you; by blowing over the top, the pressure is reduced, and the piece of paper rises up due to the higher pressure underneath it.

A similar effect could be seen in an old-fashioned push-to-close narrow train window. If such a window was open and the train entered a tunnel, the window would slam shut. Or, would a shut one blow open? Depending on whether you take the perspective of the tunnel or the train, the faster moving air is on one side of the window or it is on the other. So which way does the window go?

4) Catbird seat

The Catbird seat is one of those puzzles I like because you can solve it with drawings and trigonometry, and then you can solve it better with simpler drawings and simpler trigonometry, and then you wonder if you can solve it in some kind of purely intuitive manner.

5) Shape of a Harp

When plucked, a longer taut string makes a deeper note. A harp has progressively longer strings to cover a range of notes. However, even though the interval between each note is the same, the length of the strings does not change linearly, or even following a simple curve, but rather an S-curve. Why is that? I thought this question might have a nice intuitive solution that could be reached by reason rather than by physics, but the answer is a bit more disatisfying, so this question remained in my backlog unasked. If you don’t want to figure it out (and my personal opinion is it’s not that interesting to do so), you can read about it here, although you’ll need the internet archive page for the harp citation.


Not a harp, but the principle is the same

- Transmission finally ends

Things July 2015: Royalty Redistribution, Live Train Data, Future Cameras and Robot Art

Fairer Royalties, Better Music

I’m very interested in how the internet is changing the music industry. Some things are better (from some viewpoints): it’s cheaper to make music and distribute it; it’s easier to find and listen to a wider range of music. Some things might be worse, but it’s hard to tell: has the average amount of revenue made per song, or per minute of music, gone down? What about for the most popular 10 artists? What about for the median artist by income? Are there fewer full-time musicians, or more?

I’ve not seen good data on that, but this piece in The Economist is suggestive at least: the average age of festival headliners has gone up by 10 years over the past 20 years. But it’s not clear if that’s just because demand (for festivals) has gone up, and supply (of festival-pleasing artists) has risen more slowly, driven by older artists whose audiences now find festivals cater to their needs.

Over on PopJustice (which has my favourite cookie warning message), they suggest the move by Apple to streaming is the final nail in the coffin for not just paid downloads, but a thriving new music industry in general. If this seems hyperbolic, bear in mind that music buying doubtless follows a Pareto curve, and the small cohort that account for most of the music-buying have the strongest (short-term) incentive to switch to streaming.

With all this going on, it’s interesting to take a look at royalty distribution on streaming services. Superficially it seems simple and perfectly fair: they collect subscription fees and ad revenue, and then distribute them to artists based on how often their tracks have been played. This is how it works on Spotify.

But as this thoughtful article points out, that’s not necessarily the fairest. It would be fairer to directly distribute the revenue from a particular customer to the artists that customer listened to. That doesn’t sound like much of a change, but it really is, so I do recommend reading the article to see why. The author also argues that such a situation would be better for everyone, even the labels, and as such should be adopted. I’m less convinced by that. It’s true ‘on average’, but I suspect the current system benefits the bigger labels more, and they have a lot more of the power.

On the plus side, with Apple and Google (and others) getting into the game, perhaps this might emerge as a competitive strategy from one of them…

 

Dan Deacon: WIWDD

On the subject of new music, well, Dan Deacon is one of my favourite musicians, and it seems Adult Swim had a bunch of animators contribute segments to go with the track “When I Was Done Dying” from his most recent album, and all of those animators seem to have put in about twice as much effort as I was expecting, with this mind-boggling result:

 

Noticing Racism

For an eye-opening insight into what one might term ‘soft’ racism, I highly recommend reading this sermon followed by these excerpts on prosopagnosia. Primed by the first article, the last couple of paragraphs of the second hit pretty hard.

 

Real Time Trains

(via @PlanetTimmy)

I found it absurd that I could be on a train with internet access and yet be unable to find out when that train was expected to arrive at the various stops along the way. Evidently I wasn’t looking hard enough, because it turns out this brilliant website has that covered: RealTimeTrains.co.uk

There’s also a wonderful site with much more precise data than most people would know what to do with regarding the exact positions and statuses of trains at various key junctions. Each day a random map is free, and it’s £10 for a full year subscription. I haven’t done that yet but it’s very tempting. Check it out!

Of course, once you have this data, you want to make more efficient use of it. For instance, it’s possible with many clicks around RealTimeTrains to figure out if you can make a more efficient connection by boarding a delayed train that was originally supposed to depart before you arrived. So the next thing I need is a service that will tell me not just the best route, but the best route based on where trains are right now.

 

3D Maps of London Underground Stations

If, like me, you ever wanted to see maps of all the underground stations (specifically the 120 that are actually underground), Ian Mansfield has cleaned them all up and presented them nicely here.

 

Here Comes The Future

Finally a couple of things that gave me a bit of ‘future shock’.

This (proof-of-concept) camera is powered by the light that its sensor receives. Which, given the similarity between a digital camera’s sensor and a solar panel, actually makes sense. So cameras don’t need batteries. Wow.

Secondly, neural networks can make art. Okay, there is a human operating the controls and deliberately manipulating things to make cool-looking stuff, but maybe later a neural network can figure out what ‘cool-looking’ means better than us, and start producing all kinds of cool stuff. Okay, that bit’s probably a lot further away, but this does make me lose a bit of confidence in the belief that artist’s jobs are robot-proof. Nobody’s job is safe from the robots. The robots are coming. We have been warned.

- Transmission abruptly ends

Things 134: Overanalysis of popular media for Fun and Recreation

At school, I thought the purpose of English Literature was to argue about hidden meanings in books, meanings I believed were not remotely connected to the author’s original intent, and that I therefore considered worthless.

Since then, I’ve completely changed my mind. Intent is bunk, over-reading things is fun! Are the Star Wars prequels actually the purest embodiment of George Lucas’s original desire to recreate the adventure serials of his youth? Or is Lucas in fact the world’s greatest troll, deliberately irritating the original trilogy’s fans, perhaps because he resents the way they feel a kind of ownership of the material he originally created? I don’t know, but it’s a lot of fun to think and argue about both, preferably simultaneously!

“Any man who inflicts the human race with ideas must be prepared to see them misunderstood.” – H. L. Mencken

So, this edition of Things is dedicated to finding joy in metatextual resonances and overanalysis of popular media that I have particularly enjoyed.

 

Candy Crush / Addiction

Art Hawk is a video series that’s all about over-reading meaning in games, all delivered in a silly voice and with layered, weird and occasionally relevant imagery. Needless to say, I love it. Here, Art Hawk explains why Candy Crush is a wonderful piece of ARRRRTTTT:

 

Seinfeld / The Ballardian Infinite

Claire Evans writes about how the Seinfeld episode about a seemingly endless car park is part of a rich tradition going back to J. G. Ballard and J. L. Borges, and finds meaning in the fact that the traditional apartment set was physically replaced by the garage set. Were these layers of meaning intended? Probably not! And that’s fine.

 

Movies in general / The lives of the stars

I’m interested in movies and how they are made, but not in the personal lives of actors and actresses – what would usually be termed ‘gossip’. But I was fascinated by The Rules of The Game, an excellent long-form article on the relationship between celebrity, gossip and publicity in the movie industry over the past 100 years. In particular, I was interested by this core insight (emphasis mine):

… media outlets report that George Clooney, whose picture personality is that of a handsome, charismatic, yet hesitant to commit man-about-town, replicates those characteristics in his “real” life, gallivanting about Lake Como, switching beautiful girlfriends every few years. The extra-textual information ratifies and authenticates his overarching image; the “real” Clooney is in fact all of the things he is in, say, Ocean’s Eleven. Whether we’re conscious of it or not, that coherency is at once pleasurable and reassuring.

Yes! That’s exactly it. I suspect this is why the media frenzy about Clooney’s recent narrative-breaking engagement was so large that even I heard about it.

 

The LEGO Movie as message-bearing trojan horse

Film Critic Hulk wrote a lengthy, heartfelt piece on why The LEGO Movie really works. Hulk suggests that one of the key plot-points within the movie represents what the makers of the movie are actually attempting to achieve with the movie itself [Spoilers approaching]:

LORD AND MILLER ACTUALLY OUTLINE THEIR ENTIRE MODUS OPERANDI RIGHT THERE IN THE MOVIE ITSELF […] DISGUISE YOUR THING SO IT SEEMS LIKE A THING THEY’LL ACCEPT […] THEN WORK WITHIN THE CONFINES OF THOSE ACCEPTED WAYS IN ORDER TO DO WHAT YOU ACTUALLY WANT TO DO. IT’S A LITERAL HEIST, BUT IT’S A METAPHOR FOR A CREATIVE ONE TOO.

Specifically, they disguise the movie as a light and fluffy fun-for-all-the-family frolic, while delivering (a bit heavy-handedly in my opinion) a message about adult responsibility and what life is really all about.

 

Jennifer Lawrence’s rise to stardom and The Hunger Games

I first saw Jennifer Lawrence in Winter’s Bone, an independent movie she carried almost single-handedly. She plays a teenage girl with an absent father and an emotionally diminished mother, who supports her family in a harsh backwoods environment by, among other things, hunting squirrels.

A couple of years later, she was cast as the lead in The Hunger Games, in which she plays a teenage girl with an absent father and an emotionally diminished mother, who supports her family in a harsh backwoods environment by, among other things, hunting squirrels. She puts herself forward to be thrust into the limelight of something called ‘The Hunger Games’, where she is a tremendous success thanks to her grit and skills. And of course, by being cast in The Hunger Games movie, Jennifer Lawrence herself was thrust into the real-world limelight, and is currently enjoying tremendous success thanks to her skills and, possibly, grit. I’ve got to admit, I do find that coherency strangely reassuring.

(Her intervening appearance in X-Men: First Class only breaks this narrative a little bit).

 

Baron Munchausen’s defeat(?) by bureaucrats

The Adventures of Baron Munchausen is one of the more extraordinary entries in Terry Gilliam’s canon, a wonderfully creative and madcap romp through various ridiculous scenarios which betrays none of the difficulties that beset its production. [Spoilers about to break down the gate.]

In the movie, bureaucrats, following entirely rational procedures, prolong the suffering of the people in a city under siege. The Baron defies them, and through sheer force of will, creativity, and with a few friends, defeats the attacking army. But the chief bureaucrat then has the last laugh, assassinating the Baron.

Similarly, despite bureaucrats at Colombia attempting to fatally restrict the movie’s budget, and in the face of all manner of other challenges, Terry Gilliam nevertheless created something wonderful – through sheer force of will, creativity, and with a few friends. But the bureaucrats got the last laugh, as a political change within Colombia resulted in the movie being given such a limited release it could not possibly succeed, effectively assassinating it.

In the film, with one final, surreally creative twist, the Baron nonetheless declares victory. In the documentary accompanying the movie on DVD, Gilliam feels that this resonates with real life still further: despite everything, the movie is everything he wanted it to be, and it lives on with home releases; this represents his final victory.

(On the subject of Terry Gilliam, the parallel between Doctor Parnassus peddling incredible things to an unengaged modern audience and Gilliam’s late career is almost too overt to mention here).

 

The Wachoswki’s Speed Racer as a triumph of Art over Commerce

Speed Racer is my favourite movie. It’s utterly ridiculous and visually stunning, which I find an irresistible combination. This quote from the Ain’t It Cool review explains that a little better:

You know how sometimes you see a trailer for a film like THE FIFTH ELEMENT, and they show you all this eye candy and it looks like the whole film is full of that? And then you see the film and it’s actually about 10% crazy eye candy and the rest looks like a regular movie? Well, that ain’t SPEED RACER. Every single image in this film is outrageous, hyperreal, and color-saturated, and at first, it’s sort of a shock to the system. But by about 15 minutes in, your eyes get used to it, and suddenly the entire palate becomes sort of beautiful.

But it’s more than that – in Adam Saltsman’s Vanquish retrospective he draws a parallel between that underrated video game and Speed Racer, and sums up this other brilliant property of the film:

In SPEED RACER, time is completely relative; a viscous fluid, the passage of which, like our place in the chronology and memories of the characters, is utterly dependent on the story, rather than linearity, or even cinematic tradition. Time and space shift according to the needs of the narrative and cinematography, but in a way that is intimidatingly holistic and with a degree of confidence that would be unnerving if it wasn’t so thoroughly saturated with real human love.

Anyway, to get back to the point, and what really cements the movie’s place at the top of my all-time-favourite list, is Chris Stangl’s observation that it is essentially a metaphor for its own creation:

Because Speed Racer is about something; about something moving and important […] Speed Racer is about art and commerce, though the stand-ins are racing-constantly-compared-to-art and patronage in the form of corporate driver sponsorship, with Speed Racer as a virtuoso whose work in content and form reduces crowds to tears of ecstacy. It’s about accepting that your art exists in a commercial sphere, that money and power are in the balance, from sponsor on down to spectator… but the artist needs to do what the artist does, and ignore all that. Listen to what the car needs. When you turn in something bizarre and startling, garish and strange — even when it gets upsetting and your mom has to look away — as long as you drove as hard as you could, you did your goddamn job […] The Wachowskis are encouraging artists who can’t help but make the weird new things they make, to be bold, proud. When it’s in your blood, you have no choice anyhow.

The fact that the film proved to be a financial disaster makes this message all the more poignant for me.

- Tim Mannveille tweets as @metatim and writes more about films on his personal blog

 

Things 123: Game weekends, Puffins, Lilith, Abstract Animated GIFs

Events - Sandpit this very weekend (25th August), Weekender later (Fri 14th-Sun 16th September)
Hide & Seek are running one of their curated ‘Sandpit’ game events, taking place on Saturday and Sunday afternoons this weekend (25th and 26th August), unusually but awesomely located at the Natural History Museum. NHM page is here; a longer article about what’s happening can be found on Wired.

Then, from Friday 14th through to Sunday 16th September is Hide & Seek’s Weekender (facebook event here), mostly in the Clore Ballroom in that Royal Festival Hall place, this being as usual a whole festival of games, largely drawn from Sandpit events from the last two years.

This happens to include Competitive Sandwich Making on the Friday, which Clare and I will be running (here’s what happened last year when we ran first), this time featuring a secret rank beyond Earl of Sandwich, if people are competitive enough to discover it. There’s also lots of other amazing things happening, including two of my favourites: Die Gute Fabrik’s Johann Sebastien Joust and Viviane Schwarz’s Treasure Maze.

Tim Link - You’re In A Room
I finally wrote up the game Clare and I made for a more recent Sandpit: You’re In A Room, a sort of Whose Line Is It Anyway version of Knightmare; you can find out what on earth that means here.

Video – Puffin Webcam
In the exciting new world of putting webcam streams onto my TV for background entertainment, now that the Miranda’s Kittens feed is no longer live, I’ve had to find something else. It turns out there’s a whole range of great feeds available on explore.org, including a puffin cam.

Bonus videovia Clare while I was writing this
Dog swims with dolphins!

QuoteLilith
I recently wondered what really is the deal with the biblical (or is she?) character of Lilith, so I turned to Wikipedia on the subject, and found it fascinating – here’s just the section headings to give you an idea of the span of cultural records she appears in:

Mesopotamian mythology
Siegmund Hurwitz
In the Bible
Jewish tradition
Greco-Roman mythology
Arabic mythology
In Western literature
In modern occultism

The highlight for me was discovering that Lilith only appears once in the bible, and even then arguably so, in Isiah 34:

(13) [Edom] shall become an abode for jackals and a haunt for ostriches. (14) Wildcats shall meet with desert beasts, satyrs shall call to one another; There shall the lilith repose, and find for herself a place to rest. (15) There the hoot owl shall nest and lay eggs, hatch them out and gather them in her shadow; There shall the kites assemble, none shall be missing its mate. (16) Look in the book of the LORD and read: No one of these shall be lacking, For the mouth of the LORD has ordered it, and His spirit shall gather them there.

This makes “lilith” (in the bible at least) a hapax legomenon, a word only occurring once in the source and therefore challenging to decipher – given only this context, is she a demon, or just some kind of regular animal with sinister associations?

I also recommend reading this translation of Isiah 34 in full (it’s only ~400 words), as it’s use of hyperbole puts our modern tabloid newspapers and comment trolls to shame.

Pictures – Abstract Animated GIFs
I’ve seen some interesting abstract animated GIFs floating around the internet, and tracked them down to two artists: David Ope, and Mr Div. Here’s one example of each, and do click through to view the rest of their work:

David Ope:

Mr Div:

Puzzle - The shrinking empires
Here’s an unfortunately small version of a fascinating visualisation of world history (which we bought as a poster for the office from Stanfords, although they don’t seem to have them any more), with time running from left to right, and rough location on earth from top to bottom, with identifiable countries/kingdoms/empires marked out:

You can just about see the Roman Empire as a big blob of orange in the middle, the Ottoman Empire in blue towards the right, and the British Empire stretching wide in patches of red before retreating back home by the time we reach the right-hand side representing the present day.

Even at this scale, one pattern is apparent: they just don’t make empires as big as they used to. The closer we get to the present day, the smaller the tribal groups become. Why is this?