Twerking, Moonwalking AI Robots–They’re Now Here

In a study released last year, Katja Grace at Oxford's Future of Humanity Institute “surveyed the world’s leading researchers in artificial intelligence by asking them when they think intelligent machines will better humans in a wide range of tasks.” After interviewing 1,634 experts, they found that they “believe there is a 50% chance of AI outperforming humans in all tasks in 45 years and of automating all human jobs in 120 years.” That includes everything from driving trucks, running cash registers, to performing surgery, and writing New York Times bestsellers. These sobering predictions have prompted academics, like Northeastern University president Joseph Aoun, to write books along the lines of Robot-Proof: Higher Education in the Age of Artificial Intelligence which asks the question, How can universities "educate the next generation of college students to invent, to create, and to discover—filling needs that even the most sophisticated robot cannot"? It's a good question. But a challenging one too. Because it assumes we understand what robots can, and cannot, do. Case in point, Boston Dynamics released a video this week of its SpotMini robot dancing to Bruno Mars’s “Uptown Funk.” It can moonwalk. It can twerk. Did the dance departments see that coming? Doubt it.

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A Medieval Book That Opens Six Different Ways, Revealing Six Different Books in One

Technology has come so far that we consider it no great achievement when a device the size of a single paper book can contain hundreds, even thousands, of different texts. But 21st-century humanity didn't come up with the idea of putting multiple books in one, nor did we first bring that idea into being — not by a long shot. Medieval book historian Erik Kwakkel points, for example, to the "dos-à-dos" (back to back) binding of the 16th and 17th centuries, which made for books "like Siamese twins in that they present two different entities joined at their backs: each part has one board for itself, while a third is shared between the two," so "reading the one text you can flip the 'book' to consult the other."

Not long thereafter, Kwakkel posted an artifact that blows the dos-à-dos out of the water: a 16th-century book that contains no fewer than six different books in a single binding. "They are all devotional texts printed in Germany during the 1550s and 1570s (including Martin Luther, Der kleine Catechismus) and each one is closed with its own tiny clasp," he writes.




"While it may have been difficult to keep track of a particular text’s location, a book you can open in six different ways is quite the display of craftsmanship." You can admire it — and try to figure it out — from a variety of different angles at the Flickr account of the National Library of Sweden, where it currently resides in the archives of the Royal Library.

Four or five centuries ago, a book like this would no doubt have impressed its beholders as much as or even more than the most advanced piece of handheld consumer electronics impresses us today. But when the internet discovered Kwakkel's post, it became clear that this six-in-one devotional captivates us in much the same way as a brand-new, never-before-seen digital device. "With a literacy rate hovering around an estimated 5 to 10 percent of the population during the Middle Ages, only a select few of society's upper echelons and religious castes had use for books," Andrew Tarantola reminds us. "So who would have use for a sextuplet of stories bound by a single, multi-hinged cover like this? Some seriously busy scholar." And he writes that not on a site for enthusiasts of old books, Medieval history, or religious scholarship, but at the temple of tech worship known as Gizmodo.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

The 10 Commandments of Chindōgu, the Japanese Art of Creating Unusually Useless Inventions

Back in the 1990s I'd often run across volumes of the Unuseless Japanese Inventions series at bookstores. Each one features about a hundred ostensibly real Japanese devices, photographed and described with a disarming straightforwardness, that mash up other consumer products in outwardly bizarre ways: chopsticks whose attached miniature electric fan cools ramen noodles en route to the mouth; a plastic zebra crossing to unroll and lay across a street at the walker's convenience; an inverted umbrella attached to a portable tank for rainwater collection on the go. Such things, at once plausible and implausible, turn out to have their own word in the Japanese language: chindōgu (珍道具), or "curious tool."

"There's an essence to chindōgu that can't be ignored," writes Michael Richey at Tofugu, where you can view an extensive gallery of examples. "They need to be useful, but only just so. Something people could use, but probably won't because of shame," a famously powerful force in Japanese society.




They also adhere to a set of principles laid down by Kenji Kawakami, former editor of the country housewife-targeted magazine Mail Order Life, who first revealed chindōgu to Japan by showing off his prototypes in the back pages. These ten commandments of chindōgu are as follows:

  1. A Chindōgu Cannot be for Real Use — They must be, from a practical point of view, useless.
  2. A Chindōgu Must Exist — A Chindōgu must be something that you can actually hold, even if you aren’t going to use it.
  3. There must be the Spirit of Anarchy in Every Chindōgu — Chindōgu inventions represent the freedom to be (almost) useless and challenge the historical need for usefulness.
  4. Chindōgu Tools are for Everyday Life — Chindōgu must be useful (or useless) to everyone around the world for everyday life.
  5. Chindōgu are Not for Sale — Chindōgu cannot be sold, as this would go against the spirit of the art form.
  6. Humor is Not the Sole Reason for Creating a Chindōgu — Even if Chindōgu are inherently quirky and hilarious, the main reason they are created is for problem solving.
  7. Chindōgu are Not Propaganda — Chindōgu are, however, innocent and made with good intentions. They should only be created to be used (or not used).
  8. Chindōgu are Never Taboo — Chindōgu must adhere to society’s basic standards.
  9.  Chindōgu Cannot be Patented — Chindōgu cannot be copyrighted or patented, and are made to be shared with the rest of the world.
  10. Chindōgu Are Without Prejudice — Everyone should have an equal chance to enjoy every Chindōgu.

These principles resulted in the kind of inventions that drew great fascination and amusement in their home country — you can watch a short Japanese television broadcast showing Kawakami demonstrate a few chindōgu above — but not only there. The Unuseless Japanese Inventions books came out in the West at just the right time, a historical moment that saw Japan's image shift from that of a fearsome innovator and economic powerhouse to that of an inward-looking but often charming nation of obsessives and eccentrics. Of course such people, so Western thinking went, would come up with fashionable earrings that double as earplugs, a cup holder that slots into a jacket pocket, and shoes with toe-mounted brooms and dustpans.

Kawakami has continued to invent and exhibit chindōgu in recent years, and even now his work remains as analog as ever. "There’s always some process in analog products, and these processes themselves can be their purpose,” he told the Japan Times in a 2001 interview. "If you look at digital products, they all isolate people and leave them in their own small world, depriving them of the joy of communicating with others... I can’t deny that they make life more exciting and convenient, but they also make human relationships more shallow and superficial." Those wise words look wiser all the time — but then, you'd expect that degree of insight into 21st-century life from the man who may well have invented the selfie stick.

via Messy Nessy

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Jurassic Park Without Dinosaurs: Watch Humans Stare in Amazement at a World Stripped of CGI Creations

How many times have you encountered an otherwise perfect view spoiled by a newly erected high rise, a construction crane, or a CGI brachiosaurus?

Constantly, right?

Video editor William Hirsch makes light work of Jurassic Park’s primary attractions’ first appearance, literally erasing them from the scene.

Hirsch estimated that it took him about a week to get rid of those pesky ‘saurs using nothing fancier than After Effects’s built in tools, which include the motion tracking software Mocha.




It's equal parts ridiculous and lovely to see humans suddenly thunderstruck by the unspoiled landscape they’ve been driving through.

These days, of course, Laura Dern would have to glance up from her phone, not a paper map.

Though it's not such a stretch to imagine Jurassic Park's author's successor, the late Michael Crichton's literary heir, hard at work on a dystopian novel titled Park.

At the time of its release, Jurassic Park’s dinosaurs were a special effects game changer. Their numbers were supplemented by some non-computer-generated animatronic models, though no doubt Spielberg was apprehensive given the way his robotic sharks acted up on the set of Jaws. The human players may have had more screen time, but the dinosaurs’ 15 minutes of footage has resulted in a lasting fame, extending decades beyond the expected 15 minutes.

Unexpectedly, Hirsch’s dinosaurs, or rather, lack thereof, have generated the most excitement with regard to his project. But his attention to detail is also laudable. Above, he reveals how he tweaked the access badge dangling from the rear view mirror of the park's all-terrain vehicle.

Are we wrong to think that John Williams’ swelling original score feels more organic in this dinosaur-free context? Rivers, trees, and vast amounts of skies have been known to spur composers to such heights.

The potentially lethal prehistoric beasts are out of the way, but that line “We’re gonna make a fortune with this place” retains an air of ominous foreshadowing, given the plentiful natural resources on display. Sometimes humans can do more damage than dinosaurs.

If that feels too intense, you can also retreat to the escapist pleasures of the original, below.

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Join her in NYC on Monday, October 15 for another monthly installment of her book-based variety show, Necromancers of the Public Domain. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

A Brief History of Guitar Distortion: From Early Experiments to Happy Accidents to Classic Effects Pedals

The sound of rock and roll is the sound of a distorted guitar, but the history of that sound predates the genre by a few years. It started out with blues and Western swing guitarists, searching “for a dirtier sound,” writes Noisey in a brief history, “a sound that reflected the grittiness of their music.” That sound was pioneered by a guitarist named Junior Barnard, who played with Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys and designed his own humbucking pickups to produce a fatter, louder tone and push his small amp into overdrive. As the Polyphonic video above notes, Barnard was an aggressive player who needed aggressive tones, and so, as guitarists have always done, he invented the means himself.

Other forerunners achieved distorted tones by cranking early amps like the 18-watt Fender Super, first introduced in 1947, all the way up, until the vacuum tubes clipped the signal to keep from breaking. Goree Carter, sometimes credited with recording the first rock and roll song, “Rock A While,” pushed the overdriven sound in a heavier direction than Barnard, playing dirty Chuck Berry-like licks in 1949 before Chuck Berry's first hit. Distortion, a sound audio engineers struggled mightily to avoid in live sound and recording, gave blues-based guitarists exactly what they needed for the loud, lewd postwar sounds of rock.

The distorted tones of the 40s came from a deliberate desire for grit. Later, even dirtier, guitar tones were the result of happy accidents. Another contender for the first rock and roll recording—Ike Turner & His Kings of Rhythm’s 1951 “Rocket 88”—contains some very distorted rhythms from guitarist Willie Kizart, who, legend has it, dropped his tweed Fender amp before the session. Sam Phillips “leaned into” the sound, notes Polyphonic, immediately hearing its serendipitous potential.




Seven years later, the evil overdrive of Link Wray’s instrumental “Rumble"—so sinister it was once banned from radio—came from an intentional equipment failure. Wray repeatedly stabbed the speaker cone of his amp with a pencil.

Do-it-yourself distortion continued into the sixties. Following Wray’s lead, the Kinks’ Dave Davies slashed his amp’s speaker with a razor blade for the fuzzed-out attack of “You Really Got Me” in 1965. But a few years earlier, “fuzz” had already been codified in an effects pedal: Gibson’s 1962 Maestro FZ-1 Fuzz-Tone, partly inspired by another accident, a faulty mixing board connection that distorted Grady Martin’s bass solo in the Marty Robbins’ 1961 country tune “Don’t Worry” (below, at 1:25). The Fuzz-Tone most famously drove Keith Richards’ riff in “Satisfaction,” but it didn't sell well. Other, more popular fuzz boxes followed, like the Arbiter Fuzz Face, Jimi Hendrix’s choice for his distorted tones.

Hendrix brilliantly innovated new guitar effects, and the powerful Marshall amps he played through also drove the distorted sounds of Clapton, Townshend, Page, Blackmore, etc., who competed for grittier and heavier tones and in the process more or less invented metal guitar. In the seventies and eighties, distorted tones took on some standardized forms, thanks to transistors and classic effects pedals like the Ibanez Tube Screamer, ProCo Rat, and Boss DS-1. Distinctions between overdrive, distortion, and fuzz effects can get technical, but in the early days of rock and roll, distorted guitar tones came from whatever worked, and it’s that wild early sound of gear pushed to its limits and beyond that every modern distortion effect attempts to replicate.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Discover Rare 1980s CDs by Lou Reed, Devo & Talking Heads That Combined Music with Computer Graphics

When it first hit the market in 1982, the compact disc famously promised "perfect sound that lasts forever." But innovation has a way of marching continually on, and naturally the innovators soon started wondering: what if perfect sound isn't enough? What if consumers want something to go with it, something to look at? And so, when compact disc co-developers Sony and Philips updated its standards, they included documentation on the use of the format's channels not occupied by audio data. So was born the CD+G, which boasted "not only the CD's full, digital sound, but also video information — graphics — viewable on any television set or video monitor."

That text comes from a package scan posted by the online CD+G Museum, whose Youtube channel features rips of nearly every record released on the format, beginning with the first, the Firesign Theatre's Eat or Be Eaten.




When it came out, listeners who happened to own a CD+G-compatible player (or a CD+G-compatible video game console, my own choice at the time having been the Turbografx-16) could see that beloved "head comedy" troupe's densely layered studio production and even more densely layered humor accompanied by images rendered in psychedelic color — or as psychedelic as images can get with only sixteen colors available on the palette, not to mention a resolution of 288 pixels by 192 pixels, not much larger than a icon on the home screen of a modern smartphone. Those limitations may make CD+G graphics look unimpressive today, but just imagine what a cutting-edge novelty they must have seemed in the late 1980s when they first appeared.

Displaying lyrics for karaoke singers was the most obvious use of CD+G technology, but its short lifespan also saw a fair few experiments on such other major-label releases, all viewable at the CD+G Museum, as Lou Reed's New York, which combines lyrics with digitized photography of the eponymous city; Talking Heads' Naked, which provides musical information such as the chord changes and instruments playing on each phrase; Johann Sebastian Bach's St. Matthew Passion, which translates the libretto alongside works of art; and Devo's single "Disco Dancer," which tells the origin story of those "five Spudboys from Ohio." With these and almost every other CD+G release available at the CD+G museum, you'll have no shortage of not just background music but background visuals for your next late-80s-early-90s-themed party.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

How the Grateful Dead’s “Wall of Sound”–a Monster, 600-Speaker Sound System–Changed Rock Concerts & Live Music Forever

There is a scene in Return of the Jedi when Luke Skywalker defeats the monstrous, man-eating Rancor, crushing its skull with a portullis, and we see the beast’s keeper, a portly shirtless gentleman in leather breeches and headgear, weeping over the loss of his beloved friend. I think of this scene when I read about a night in 1974 at San Francisco’s Winterland Ballroom when Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart walked on the stage and found the band’s sound engineer Owsley “Bear” Stanley standing in front of “a solid wall of over 600 speakers.”

As Enmore Audio tells it:

Tears streamed down his face and he whispered to the mass of wood, metal, and wiring, with the tenderness of any parent witnessing their child’s first recital, “I love you and you love me—how could you fail me?”

The story sums up Owsley’s total dedication to what became known as “The Wall of Sound,” a feat of technical engineering that “changed the way technicians thought about live engineering.” The "three-story behemoth... was free of all distortion... served as its own monitoring system and solved many, if not all of the technical problems that sound engineers faced at that time.” But, while it had required much trial and error and many refinements, it did not fail, as you’ll learn in the Polyphonic video above.




Live sound problems not only bedeviled engineers but bands and audiences as well. Throughout the sixties, rock concerts grew in size and scope, audiences grew larger and louder, yet amplification did not. Low-wattage guitar amps could hardly be heard over the sound of screaming fans. Without monitoring systems, bands could barely hear themselves play. This “noise crisis,” writes Motherboard, “confronted musicians who went electric at the height of the war in Vietnam," but it has been “routinely snuffed from the annals of modern music.”

In dramatic recreations of the period, drums and guitars boom and wail over the noise of stadium and festival crowds. For ears accustomed to the power of modern sound systems, the actual experience, by contrast, would have been underwhelming. Most Beatles fans know the band quit touring in 1966 because they couldn’t hear themselves over the audience. Things improved somewhat, but the Dead, “obsessed with their sound to compulsive degrees,” could not abide the noisy, feedback-laden, underpowered situation. Still, they weren’t about to give up playing live, and certainly not with Owsley on board.

"A Kentucky-born craftsman and former ballet dancer"—and a manufacturer and distributer of “mass quantities of high-grade LSD," whose profits financed the Dead for a time—Owsley applied his obsession with “sound as both a concept and a physical thing." To solve the noise crisis for the Dead, he first built an innovative sound system in 1973 (after serving a couple stints in prison for selling acid). The following year, he suggested putting the PA system behind the band, “a crazy idea at the time.”

His experiments in ‘74 evolved to include line arrays—“columns of speakers… designed to control the dispersion of sound across the frequency range”—noise-canceling microphones to clear up muddy vocals, six separate sound systems that could isolate eleven channels, and a quadraphonic encoder for the bass, “which took a signal,” Enmore notes, “from each string and projected it through its own set of speakers.” The massive Wall of Sound could not last long. It had to be streamlined into a far more manageable and cost-effective touring rig. All the same, Owsley and the band’s willingness take ideas and execution to extreme lengths changed live sound forever for the better.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

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