The Cutting-Edge Science That Can Turn Everyday Objects, Like a Bag of Chips, Into a Listening Device

For decades we've laughed at the persistent movie and television cliche of "image enhance," whereby characters — usually detectives of one kind or another in pursuit of a yet-unknown villain — discover just the clue they need by way of technological magic that somehow increases the amount of detail in a piece of found footage. But now, of course, our age of rapidly improving artificial intelligence has brought an algorithm for that. And not only can such technologies find visual data we never thought an image contained, they can find sonic data as well: recovering the sound, in other words, "recorded" in ostensibly silent video.

"When sound hits an object, it causes small vibrations of the object’s surface," explains the abstract of "The Visual Microphone: Passive Recovery of Sound from Video," a paper by Abe Davis, Michael Rubinstein, Neal Wadhwa, Gautham Mysore, Fredo Durand, and William T. Freeman. "We show how, using only high-speed video of the object, we can extract those minute vibrations and partially recover the sound that produced them, allowing us to turn everyday objects — a glass of water, a potted plant, a box of tissues, or a bag of chips — into visual microphones." Or a listening device. You can see, and more impressively hear, this process in action in the video at the top of the post.




The video just above magnifies the sound-caused motion of a bag of chips, to give us a sense of what their algorithm has to work with when it infers the sound present in the bag's environment. In a way this all holds up to common sense, given that sound, as we all learn, comes from waves that make other things vibrate, be they our eardrums, our speakers — or, as this research reveals, pretty much everything else as well. Though the bag of chips turned out to work quite well as a recording medium, some of their other test subjects, including a brick chosen specifically for its lack of sound-capturing potential, also did better than expected.

The hidden information potentially recoverable from video hardly stops there, as suggested by Rubinstein's TED Talk just above. "Of course, surveillance is the first application that comes to mind," he says, to slightly nervous laughter from the crowd. But "maybe in the future we'll be able to use it, for example, to recover sound across space, because sound can't travel in space, but light can." Just one of many scientifically noble possibilities, for which watching what we say next time we open up a bag of Doritos would be, perhaps, a small price to pay.

via Kottke

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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.

What Is Blockchain? Three Videos Explain the New Technology That Promises to Change Our World

You've heard the word "blockchain" many times now, but probably not quite as many as you've heard the word "bitcoin." Yet you surely have a sense that the referents of those two words have a connection, and even if you haven't yet been interested in either, you may well know that blockchain, a technology, makes Bitcoin, a currency, possible in the first place. Their sheer novelty has already given rise to a mini-industry of explainer videos, more of them dealing directly with bitcoin than blockchain, but in time the latter could potentially overtake the former in importance, to the degree that it becomes as vital to society as the protocols that undergird the internet itself.

Or at least you could come away convinced of that after watching the blockchain explainer videos featured here. The shortest of the three, the one by the Institute for the Future at the top of the post, attempts to break down, in just two minutes, the principles behind this technology, still in its infancy, in which so many see such revolutionary potential.




"Blockchains store information across a network of personal computers, making them not just decentralized but distributed," says the video's narrator. "This means no central company or person owns the system, yet everyone can use it and help run it." And according to blockchain's boosters, that very decentralization and distribution makes it that much more trustable and less hackable.

In the Wired video just above, blockchain researcher Bettina Warburg explains her subject in five different ways to people at five different stages of life, from a five-year-old girl to a fully grown academic. Actually, that last interlocutor, an NYU historian named Finn Brunton, does much of the explaining himself, and right at the beginning of his segment (at 9:48) rolls out one of the clearer and more intriguing rundown of the nature of blockchain currently floating around on the internet:

A technical definition of blockchain is that it is a persistent, transparent, public, append-only ledger. So it is a system that you can add data to, and not change previous data within. It does this through a mechanism for creating consensus between scattered, or distributed, parties that do not need to trust each other. They just need to trust the mechanism by which their consensus is arrived at. In the case of blockchain, it relies on some form of challenge such that no one actor on the network is able to solve this challenge more consistently than anyone else on the network. It randomizes the process, and in theory ensures that no one can force the blockchain to accept a particular entry onto the ledger that others disagree with.

Brunton also emphasizes that "almost every aspect of it that is connected with the concept of money" — including but not limited to Bitcoin — "is wildly over-hyped." Those who can look past the Gold Rush-style ballyhooing of those early applications of blockchain can better grasp what role the technology, which essentially enables the building of systems to securely exchange information over the internet that no one person or company owns, might one day play in many parts of our lives, from finance to energy to health care. "Credit scores that aren’t controlled by a handful of high-risk, data-breach-prone companies," promises Carissa Carter of Stanford's d.school, "credible news systems that resist censorship; efficient power grids that could lower your power bills."

Before it can bring those wonders, Bitcoin must first overcome formidable technical limitations: as Computerworld's Lucas Mearian writes, for instance," the Bitcoin blockchain harnesses anywhere between 10 and 100 times as much computing power compared to all of Google's serving farms put together."  But then, few of the first developers of the technologies that drive the internet could have imagined all we do with them across the world today, and those who did must have had a solid understanding of its most basic elements. How do you know when you've attained that understanding? "If you can't explain it simply, you don't understand it well enough," as Albert Einstein once said, and as Citi Innovation Lab CTO Shai Rubin quotes him as saying at the beginning of his own blockchain explainer, performed in less than fifteen minutes using no pieces of technology more revolutionary than a whiteboard and marker.

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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.

Radiooooo: Discover the Musical Time Machine That Lets You Hear What Played on the Radio in Different Times & Places

Radio has always been a fairly transportive medium.

During the Great Depression, entire families clustered round the electronic hearth to enjoy a variety of entertainments, including live remote broadcasts from the glamorous nightclubs and hotels where celebrity bandleaders like Count Basie and Duke Ellington held sway.

1950s teens’ transistors took them to a head space less square than the white bread suburbs their parents inhabited.




During the Vietnam War, South Vietnamese stations played homegrown renditions of the rock and soul sounds dominating American airwaves.

The Radiooooo.com app allows modern listeners to experience a bit of that magical time traveling sensation, via an interactive map that allows you to tune in to specific countries and decades.

The content here is user-generated. Register for a free account, and you too can begin sharing eccentric faves.

Find a user whose tastes mirror your own? Click their profile for a stat card of tracks they’ve favorited and uploaded, as well as any other sundry details they may feel like sharing, such as country of origin and age.

There are fun awards to be earned here, with the most sought after pelts going to the first to upload a song to an empty country, or upload a track from 1910-1920. (Cameroon, 1940 … go!)

As with an actual radio, you are not selecting the actual playlist, though you can nudge the needle a bit by toggling to your desired mood—slow, fast and/or weird.

And you need not limit yourself to a single destination. Embark on a strange musical trip by using Radiooooo's taxi function to carry you to multiple countries and decades. (I closed my eyes and wound up shuttling between Ukraine and Mauritania in the 60s and 80s.)

Dotted around the map are island icons, where the ever-growing collection is sorted according to themes like Hawaii, Neverland (“for children big and small”), and 8-Bit video game music. Le Club, floating midway between Europe and North America, contains brand new releases from contemporary labels.

The Now Playing window includes an option to buy, when possible, as well as the artist’s name and album artwork. Share, like, get your groove on…

And stay tuned for Radiooooo’s latest baby, Le Globe, an interactive 3-D map of the world and a decade selector dial mounted on a “beautiful connected object.”

The boundaries are extremely permeable here.

Have a browse through Radiooooo’s Instagram feed for a feast of cover art or head to France for one of their in-person listening parties. (There’s one next week in the secret listening room of Paris’ Grand Hotel Amour.)

Readers, if your explorations unearth an exceptional track, please share it in the comments, below.

Download the Radioooo app for Mac or Android here, or listen on the website. (You may need to fool around with various browsers to find the one that works best for you.)

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Her radio dial is set to Romania 1910 in anticipation of the third installment of her literary-themed variety show, Necromancers of the Public Domain , Monday, April 23 at the New York Society Library. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

A Young Steve Jobs Teaches a Class at MIT (1992)

Asking whether there will ever be another Steve Jobs seems to me like asking whether there’ll ever be another Muhammad Ali. While there may be little comparison between their respective domains, both unique individuals mastered their chosen pursuits, fought like hell to keep their titles, and “thought different” than everyone around them. Also Jobs, like Ali, didn’t hesitate to speak his mind, as in the clip above, in which he declares Microsoft’s Windows “the worst development environment that’s ever been invented.” It ain’t politic, but it’s maybe… kinda true? I don’t know…

My opinions on the matter aren’t worth much—I wouldn’t know the backend of an operating system from the backend of a tractor-trailer. But Jobs didn’t attain tech guru status just for the sleekness and simplicity of Apple’s designs, but for his keen insights into the refinement of consumer computing technology and his ability to convey them with the unpretentious directness of a black turtleneck and dad jeans. The clips here are of a young-ish Jobs teaching at MIT circa 1992, when he was 37 and running his company NeXT, founded in 1985 after he was originally forced out of Apple.

He stayed plenty busy during his Apple interregnum, helping to launch a little computer graphics division that would become Pixar and developing the technology and designs that revolutionized Apple when it bought NeXT in 1997—and when Jobs retook his empire through proprietary ruthlessness.




Here, five years away from that fateful event, we see him explaining his philosophy of innovation to students who may or may not have foreseen the breakthroughs to come. Just above, he describes how “you can use the concept of technology of windows opening, and then eventually closing,” referring not, this time, to Bill Gates’ hated OS.

Rather, Jobs talks of a situation in which “enough technology, usually from fairly diverse places, comes together, and makes something that’s a quantum leap forward possible.” One of Jobs’ many leaps forward in consumer technology might reasonably be summed up in one word: portability, as in, the ability to carry an entire library of music or a cell phone/music player/personal computer in your pocket.  Just above, he discusses “the enemy of portability,” namely such market demands as processing speed, storage space, and high-speed networking. And in the clip below, he talks about a subject near and dear to every tech executive's heart—poaching talent from competitors such as, well, Microsoft.

The uniform of turtleneck tucked into jeans, the deliberate pacing back and forth, the expressive hand gestures and genuine comfort and confidence in front of a crowd: all of the mannerisms we remember from those hotly anticipated launch events are there in a shaggier form.

Through the various applications of his technological acumen, Jobs remained always himself. The “next Steve Jobs,” or rather those aspiring to his level of relevance should take note—he did it by insisting on doing it his way.

See several more clips of Jobs at MIT at the YouTube playlist here.

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

A Vending Machine Now Distributes Free Short Stories at Francis Ford Coppola’s Café Zoetrope

I loved the idea of a vending machine, a dispensing machine that doesn’t dispense potato chips or beer or coffee for money but gives you art. I especially liked the fact that you didn’t put money in. - Filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola

Thusly did filmmaker Coppola arrange for a free Short Edition story vending machine to be installed in Café Zoetrope, his San Francisco restaurant.

The French-built machine is the perfect companion for solitary diners, freely dispensing tales on skinny, eco-friendly paper with the push of a button. Readers have a choice over the type of story—romantic, funny, scary—and the amount of time they’re willing to devote to it.

After which, they can perhaps begin the task of adapting it into a feature-length film script. Part of Coppola’s attraction to the form is that short stories, like movies, are intended to be consumed in a single sitting.




Short Edition, the Grenoble-based start-up, has been following up on the public’s embrace of the Café Zoetrope machine by sending even more short story kiosks stateside.

Columbus Public Health just unveiled one near the children’s area at its immunization clinic, providing Ohio kids and parents from mostly disadvantaged backgrounds with access to free literature while they wait.

Philadelphia’s Free Library won a grant to install four story dispensers, with more slated for locations in South Carolina and Kansas.

Part of the allure lays in receiving a tangible object. You can recycle your story into a bookmark, leave it for someone else to find, or—in Coppola’s words—save it for an “artistic lift” while “waiting for a bus, or marriage license, or lunch.”

A café patron described the cognitive dissonance of watching her cousin read the story the Zoetrope machine picked out for her:

The scene seemed archaic: a woman frozen in concentration, in the middle of a buzzing crowd, reading from a line of print instead of scrolling through Instagram, as one might normally do while sitting solo at a bar. 

“When people ask [if] we have wifi for the kids," Café Zoetrope’s general manager told Literary Hub, “We point to the machine and say, ‘No, but you have a story—you can read.’”

Those without access to a Short Edition story vending machine can get a feel for the experience digitally on the company’s website.

Scroll down to the dice icon, specify your preferred tone and a reading time between 1 and 5 minutes.

Or throw caution to the wind by hitting the search button sans specification, as I did to become the 3232nd reader of "Drowned," a one-minute true crime story by Cléa Barreyre, translated from the French by Wendy Cross.

French speakers can also submit their writing. The vending machines’ stories are drawn from Short Edition’s online community, a trove of some 100,000 short stories by nearly 10,000 authors. Registering for a free account will allow you to read stories, after which you can toggle over to the French site to post your content through the orange author space portal at the top right of the page. The FAQ and Google Translate should come in handy here. The editors are currently reviewing submissions of comics, poems, and micro fiction for the Summer Grand Prix du Court, though again—only in French, for now. 

Short Edition hopes to start considering other languages for vending machine content inclusion soon, beginning with English. For now, all stories being dispensed have been translated from the original French by British literary professionals.

Bon courage!

via Literary Hub

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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, April 23 for the third installment of her literary-themed variety show, Necromancers of the Public Domain. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

How to Use the Rotary Dial Phone: A Primer from 1927

Most every piece of technology, no matter how simple, comes with a user manual of some sort. Even the seemingly straightforward rotary dial phone.

Although Alexander Graham Bell patented the first telephone in 1876, the first rotary dial phones didn't make their way into American homes until 1919. Then came the obligatory tutorial. Created by AT&T in 1927 and originally shown in theatres in Fresno, California, the silent film above breaks down the process of dialing a call--from using a phone directory and finding a number, to picking up the receiver and listening for that steady humming sound called the "dial tone," to turning and releasing the rotary dial multiple times, and so on. This primer would carry Americans through 1963 when the first push-button phones started to pop up. That advent of the push-button phone also came with a video, of course.

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If you'd like to support Open Culture and our mission, please consider making a donation to our site. It's hard to rely 100% on ads, and your contributions will help us provide the best free cultural and educational materials.

via the Public Domain Review

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Aldous Huxley Tells Mike Wallace What Will Destroy Democracy: Overpopulation, Drugs & Insidious Technology (1958)

Overpopulation, manipulative politics, imbalances of societal power, addictive drugs, even more addictive technologies: these and other developments have pushed not just democracy but civilization itself to the brink. Or at least author Aldous Huxley saw it that way, and he told America so when he appeared on The Mike Wallace Interview in 1958. (You can also read a transcript here.) "There are a number of impersonal forces which are pushing in the direction of less and less freedom," he told the newly famous news anchor, "and I also think that there are a number of technological devices which anybody who wishes to use can use to accelerate this process of going away from freedom, of imposing control."

Huxley's best-known novel Brave New World has remained relevant since its first publication in 1932. He appeared on Wallace's show to promote Brave New World Revisited (first published as Enemies of Freedom), a collection of essays on how much more rapidly than expected the real world had come to resemble the dystopia he'd imagined a quarter-century earlier.




Some of the reasons behind his grim predictions now seem overstated — he points out that "in the underdeveloped countries actually the standard of living is at present falling," though the reverse has now been true for quite some time — but others, from the vantage of the 21st century, sound almost too mild.

"We mustn't be caught by surprise by our own advancing technology," Huxley says in that time before smartphones, before the internet, before personal computers, before even cable television. We also mustn't be caught by surprise by those who seek indefinite power over us: to do that requires "consent of the ruled," something acquirable by addictive substances — both pharmacological and technological — as well as "new techniques of propaganda." All of this has the effect of "bypassing the sort of rational side of man and appealing to his subconscious and his deeper emotions, and his physiology even, and so, making him actually love his slavery."

Wallace's questions bring Huxley to a question of his own: "What does a democracy depend on? A democracy depends on the individual voter making an intelligent and rational choice for what he regards as his enlightened self-interest, in any given circumstance." But democracy-debilitating commercial and political propaganda appeals "directly to these unconscious forces below the surfaces so that you are, in a way, making nonsense of the whole democratic procedure, which is based on conscious choice on rational ground." Hence the importance of teaching people "to be on their guard against the sort of verbal booby traps into which they are always being led." The skill has arguably only grown in importance since, as has his final thought in the broadcast: "I still believe in democracy, if we can make the best of the creative activities of the people on top plus those of the people on the bottom, so much the better."

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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.

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