Google’s Free App Analyzes Your Selfie and Then Finds Your Doppelganger in Museum Portraits

Having the ability to virtually explore the history, back stories, and cultural significance of artworks from over a thousand museums generates nowhere near the excitement as a feature allowing users to upload selfies in hopes of locating an Instagram-worthy doppelgänger somewhere in this vast digital collection.

On the other hand, if this low-brow innovation leads great hordes of millennials and iGen-ers to cross the thresholds of museums in over 70 countries, who are we to criticize?




So what if their primary motivation is snapping another selfie with their Flemish Renaissance twin? As long as one or two develop a passion for art, or a particular museum, artist, or period, we’re good.

Alas, some disgruntled users (probably Gen X-ers and Baby Boomers) are giving the Google Arts & Culture app (iPhone-Android) one-star reviews, based on their inability to find the only feature for which they downloaded it.

Allow us to walk you through.

After installing the app (iPhone-Android) on your phone or tablet, scroll down the homepage to the question “Is your portrait in a museum?”

The sampling of artworks framing this question suggest that the answer may be yes, regardless of your race, though one need not be a Guerilla Girl to wonder if Caucasian users are drawing their matches from a far larger pool than users of color…

Click “get started.” (You’ll have to allow the app to access your device’s camera.)

Take a selfie. (I suppose you could hedge your bets by switching the camera to front-facing orientation and aiming it at a pleasing pre-existing headshot.)

The app will immediately analyze the selfie, and within seconds, boom! Say hello to your five closest matches.

In the name of science, I subjected myself to this process, grinning as if I was sitting for my fourth grade school picture. I and received the following results, none of them higher than 47%:

Victorio C. Edades’ Mother and Daughter (flatteringly, I was pegged as the daughter, though at 52, the resemblance to the mother is a far truer match.)

Gustave Courbet’s Jo, la Belle Irlandaise (Say what? She’s got long red hair and skin like Snow White!)

Henry Inman’s portrait of President Martin Van Buren’s daughter-in-law and defacto White House hostess, Angelica Singleton Van Buren (Well, she looks ….congenial. I do enjoy parties…)

 and Sir Anthony van Dyck’s post-mortem painting of Venetia, Lady Digby, on her Deathbed (Um…)

Hoping that a different pose might yield a higher match I channeled artist Nina Katchadourian, and adopted a more painterly pose, unsmiling, head cocked, one hand lyrically resting on my breastbone… for good measure, I moved away from the window. This time I got:

Joseph Stella’s Boy with a Bagpipe (Maybe this wasn’t such a hot idea with regard to my self-image?)

Cipriano Efsio Oppo Portrait of Isabella (See above.)

Adolph Tidemand’s Portrait of Guro Silversdatter Travendal (Is this universe telling me it’s Babushka Time?)

Johannes Christiann Janson’s A Woman Cutting Bread (aka Renounce All Vanity Time?)

and Anders Zorn’s Madonna (This is where the mean cheerleader leaps out of the bathroom stall and calls me the horse from Guernica, right?)

Mercifully, none of these results topped the 50% mark, nor did any of the experiments I conducted using selfies of my teenage son (whose 4th closest match had a long white beard).

Perhaps there are still a few bugs to work out?

If you’re tempted to give Google Arts and Culture’s experimental portrait feature a go, please let us know how it worked out by posting a comment below. Maybe we're twins, I mean, triplets!

If such folderol is beneath you, please avail yourself of the app’s original features:

  • Zoom Views - Experience every detail of the world’s greatest treasures
  • Virtual Reality - Grab your Google Cardboard viewer and immerse yourself in arts and culture
  • Browse by time and color - Explore artworks by filtering them by color or time period
  • Virtual tours - Step inside the most famous museums in the world and visit iconic landmarks
  • Personal collection - Save your favorite artworks and share your collections with friends
  • Nearby - Find museums and cultural events around you
  • Exhibits - Take guided tours curated by experts
  • Daily digest - Learn something new every time you open the app
  • Art Recognizer - Learn more about artworks at select museums by pointing your device camera at them, even when offline
  • Notifications - subscribe to receive updates on the top arts & culture stories

Download Google Arts and Culture or update to Version 6.0.17 here (for Mac) or here (for Android).

Note: We're getting reports that the app doesn't seem to be available in every geographical location. If it's not available where you live, we apologize in advance.

via Good Housekeeping

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Follow her @AyunHalliday.

The Movements of a Symphony Conductor Get Artistically Visualized in an Avant-Garde Motion Capture Animation

Some classical music enthusiasts are purists with regard to visual effects, listening with eyes firmly fixed on liner notes or the ceilings of grand concert halls.

Those open to a more avant-garde ocular experience may enjoy the short motion capture animation above.

Motivated by the London Symphony Orchestra’s desire for a hipper identity, the project hinged on recently appointed Musical Director Sir Simon Rattle’s willingness to conduct Edward Elgar’s Enigma Variations with a specially modified baton, while 12 top-of-the-range Vicon Vantage cameras noted his every move at 120 frames per second.




Digital designer Tobias Gremmler, who’s previously used motion-capture animation as a lens through which to consider kung fu and Chinese Opera, stuck with musical metaphors in animating Sir Simon’s data with Cinema 4D software. The movements of conductor and baton morph into a “vortex of wood, brass, smoke and strings” and “wires reminiscent of the strings of the instruments themselves.” Elsewhere, he draws on the atmosphere and architecture of classic concert halls.

(The uninitiated may find themselves flashing on less rarified sources of inspiration, from lava lamps and fire dancing to the 80’s-era digital universe of Tron.)

via Atlas Obscura

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Follow her @AyunHalliday.

The Story of How Beethoven Helped Make It So That CDs Could Play 74 Minutes of Music

We music fans of the increasingly all-digital 2010s take compact discs for granted, so much so that many of us haven't slid one into a player in years. But if we cast our minds back, and not even all that far, we can remember a time when CDs were precious, and the medium itself both impressive and controversial. Back when it first came on the market in 1982 (packaged in longboxes, you'll recall) it seemed impossibly high-tech, inspiring dreamily futuristic promotional videos like the one below and emerging from a process of development that required the combined R&D and industrial might of both Japan and Europe's biggest consumer-electronics giants, Sony and Philips.

That years-long coordinated effort, as Greg Milner writes in Perfecting Sound Forever, saw a team of engineers from both companies "shuttling between Eindhoven and Tokyo," the prototype CD player "given its own first-class seat on KLM."




Milner also mentions that "Philips wanted a 14-bit system and a disc that could hold an hour of music, while Sony argued for 16 bits and 74 minutes, supposedly because that was the length of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony," though he calls the Beethoven bit "likely a digital audio urban legend." But, like any urban legend, it contains grains of truth, though how many grains nobody quite knows for sure.

Philips' preferred system would play 115-millimeter discs, while Sony's would play 120-millimeter discs. As Wired's Randy Alfred tells it:

When Sony and Philips were negotiating a single industry standard for the audio compact disc in 1979 and 1980, the story is that one of four people (or some combination of them) insisted that a single CD be able to hold all of the Ninth Symphony. The four were the wife of Sony chairman Akio Morita, speaking up for her favorite piece of music; Sony VP Norio Ohga (the company’s point man on the CD), recalling his studies at the Berlin Conservatory; Mrs. Ohga (her favorite piece, too); and conductor Herbert von Karajan, who recorded for Philips subsidiary Polygram and whose Berlin Philharmonic recording of the Ninth clocked in at 66 minutes.

Further research to find the longest recorded performance came up with a mono recording conducted by Wilhelm Furtwängler at the Bayreuth Festival in 1951. That playing went a languorous 74 minutes.

A good story, sure, but as Philips Engineer Kees A. Schouhamer Immink writes in a technical article marking the CD's 25th anniversary, "everyday practice is less romantic than the pen of a public relations guru." Whatever the influence of Beethoven, in 1979 "Philips’ subsidiary Polygram — one of the world's largest distributors of music — had set up a CD disc plant in Hanover, Germany that could produce large quantities of CDs with, of course, a diameter of 115mm. Sony did not have such a facility yet. So if Sony had agreed on the 115mm disc, Philips would have had a significant competitive edge in the music market. Ohga was aware of that, did not like it, and something had to be done."

How much does the running time of a CD, which would enjoy a long reign as the dominant media for recorded music, owe to what Immink calls "Mrs. Ohga’s great passion for [Beethoven]," and how much to "the money and competition in the market of the two partners"? Not even Snopes, which rules the claim of a connection between Beethoven's Ninth and the development of the CD as "undetermined," can settle the matter. But whatever determined the length of the albums in the CD era, that 74-minute runtime remains a strong influence on our expectations of album length even now that musicians can record and sell them at any length they like — and now that we the consumers can listen any way we like, fragmenting, re-arranging, and customizing all of our music experiences, even Beethoven's Ninth.

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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.

Free, Open Source Modular Synth Software Lets You Create 70s & 80s Electronic Music—Without Having to Pay Thousands for a Real-World Synthesizer

In the past decade or so, the analog modular synth—of the kind pioneered by Robert Moog and Don Buchla—has made a comeback, creating a booming niche market full of musicians chasing the sounds of the 70s and 80s. These inscrutable racks of patchbays, oscillators, filters, etc. look to the non-initiated more like telephone operator stations of old than musical instruments. But the sounds they produce are sublime and otherworldly, with a saturated warmth unparalleled in the digital world.

But while analog technology may have perfected certain tones, one can't beat the convenience of digital recording, with its nearly unlimited multi-tracking capability, ability to save settings, and the ease of editing and arranging in the computer. Digital audio workstations have become increasingly sophisticated, able to emulate with “plug-ins” the capabilities of sought-after analog studio gear of the past. It has taken a bit longer for virtual instruments to meet this same standard, but they may be nearly there.

Only the most finely-tuned ears, for example, can hear the difference between the highest-quality digitally modeled guitar amplifiers and effects and their real-world counterparts in the mix. Even the most high-end modeling packages don't cost as much as their real life counterparts, and many also come free in limited versions. So too the wealth of analog synth software, modeled to sound convincingly like the old and newly reissued analog boxes that can run into the many thousands of dollars to collect and connect.

One such collection of synths, the VCV Rack, offers open-source virtual modular synths almost entirely free, with only a few at very modest prices. The standalone virtual rack works without any additional software. Once you’ve created an account and installed it, you can start adding dozens of plug-ins, including various synthesizers, gates, reverbs, compressors, sequencers, keyboards, etc. “It’s pretty transformative stuff,” writes CDM. “You can run virtual modules to synthesize and process sounds, both those emulating real hardware and many that exist only in software.”

The learning curve is plenty steep for those who haven’t handled this perplexing technology outside the box. A series of YouTube tutorials, a few of which you can see here, can get you going in short order. Those already experienced with the real-world stuff will delight in the expanded capabilities of the digital versions, as well as the fidelity with which these plug-ins emulate real equipment—without the need for a roomful of cables, unwieldly racks, and soldiering irons and spare parts for those inevitable bad connections and broken switches and inputs.

You can download the virtual rack here, then follow the instructions to load as many plug-ins as you like. CDM has instructions for the developer version (find the source code here), and a YouTube series called Modular Curiosity demonstrates how to install the rack and use the various plugins (see their first video further up and find the rest here). Modular System Beginner Tutorial is another YouTube guide, with five different videos. See number one above and the rest here. The longer video at the top of the post offers a “first look and noob tutorial.”

VCV Rack is only the latest of many virtual modular synths, including Native Instruments’ Reaktor Blocks and Softube’s Modular. “But these come with a hefty price tag,” notes FACT magazine. “VCV Rack can be downloaded for free on Linux, Mac and Windows platform.” And if you’re wondering how it stacks up against the real-life boxes it emulates, check out the video below.

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

What Actually Is Bitcoin? Princeton’s Free Course “Bitcoin and Currency Technologies” Provides Much-Needed Answers

"Don't Understand Bitcoin?" asked the headline of a recent video from Clickhole, the Onion's viral-media parody site. "This Man Will Mumble an Explanation at You." The inexplicable hilarity of the mumbling man and his 72-second explanation of Bitcoin contains, like all good humor, a solid truth: most of us don't understand Bitcoin, and the simplistic information we seek out, for all we grasp of it, might as well be delivered unintelligibly. A few years ago we featured a much clearer three-minute explanation of that best-known form of cryptocurrency here on Open Culture, but how to gain a deeper understanding of this technology that, in one form or another, so many of us will eventually use?

Consider joining "Bitcoin and Currency Technologies," a free course from Coursera taught by several professors from Princeton University, including computer scientist Arvind Narayanan, whose Princeton Bitcoin Textbook we featured last year. The eleven-week online course (classroom versions of whose lectures you can check out here) just began, but you can still easily join and learn the answers to questions like the following: "How does Bitcoin work? What makes Bitcoin different? How secure are your Bitcoins? How anonymous are Bitcoin users? What determines the price of Bitcoins? Can cryptocurrencies be regulated? What might the future hold?" All of those, you'll notice, have been raised more and more often in the media lately, but seldom satisfactorily addressed.

"Real understanding of the economic issues underlying the cryptocurrency is almost nonexistent," writes Nobel-winning economist Robert J. Shiller in a recent New York Times piece on Bitcoin. "It is not just that very few people really comprehend the technology behind Bitcoin. It is that no one can attach objective probabilities to the various possible outcomes of the current Bitcoin enthusiasm." Take Princeton's course, then, and you'll pull way ahead of many others interested in Bitcoin, even allowing for all the still-unknowable unknowns that have caused such thrilling and shocking fluctuations in the digital currency's eight years of existence so far. All of it has culminated in the current craze Shiller calls "a marvelous case study in ambiguity and animal spirits," and where ambiguity and animal spirits rule, a little intellectual understanding certainly never hurts.

Enroll free in "Bitcoin and Currency Technologies" here.

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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.

Hear the Christmas Carols Made by Alan Turing’s Computer: Cutting-Edge Versions of “Jingle Bells” and “Good King Wenceslas” (1951)

Alan Turing (right) stands next to the Ferranti Mark I. Photo courtesy of the University of Manchester

This Christmas, as our computers fast learn to compose music by themselves, we might gain some perspective by casting our minds back to 66 Christmases ago, a time when a computer's rendition of anything resembling music at all had thousands and thousands listening in wonder. In December of 1951, the BBC's holiday broadcast, in most respects a naturally traditional affair, included the sound of the future: a couple of much-loved Christmas carols performed not by a choir, nor by human beings of any kind, but by an electronic machine the likes of which almost nobody had even laid eyes upon.

"Among its Christmas fare the BBC broadcast two melodies that, although instantly recognizable, sounded like nothing else on earth," write Jack Copeland and Jason Long at the British Library's Sound and Vision Blog. "They were Jingle Bells and Good King Wenceslas, played by the mammoth Ferranti Mark I computer that stood in Alan Turing's Computing Machine Laboratory" at the Victoria University of Manchester. Turing, whom we now recognize for a variety of achievements in computing, cryptography, and related fields (including cracking the German "Enigma code" during the Second World War), had joined the university in 1948.




That same year, with his former undergraduate colleague D. G. Champernowne, Turing began writing a purely theoretical computer chess program. No computer existed on which he could possibly try running it for the next few years until the Ferranti Mark 1 came along, and even that mammoth proved too slow. But it could, using a function designed to give auditory feedback to its operators, play music — of a kind, anyway. The computer company's "marketing supremo," according to Copeland and Long, called its brief Christmas concert "the most expensive and most elaborate method of playing a tune that has ever been devised."

Since no recording of the broadcast survives, what you hear here is a painstaking reconstruction made from tapes of the computer's even earlier renditions of "God Save the King," "Baa Baa Black Sheep," and "In the Mood." By manually chopping up the audio, write Copeland and Long, "we created a palette of notes of various pitches and durations. These could then be rearranged to form new melodies. It was musical Lego." But do "beware of occasional dud notes. Because the computer chugged along at a sedate 4 kilohertz or so, hitting the right frequency was not always possible." Even so, somewhere in there I hear the historical and technological seeds of the much more elaborate electronic Christmas to come, from Mannheim Steamroller to the Jingle Cats and well beyond.

via The British Library

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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 the Entire Internet Looked Like in 1973: An Old Map Gets Found in a Pile of Research Papers


In 1923, Edwin Hubble discovered the universe—or rather, he discovered a star, and humans learned that the Milky Way wasn’t the whole of the cosmos. Less than 100 years later, thanks to the telescope named after him, NASA scientists estimate the universe contains at least 100 billion galaxies, and who-knows-what beyond that. The exponential growth of astronomical data collected since Hubble’s time is absolutely staggering, and it developed in tandem with the revolutionary increase in computing power over an even shorter span, which enabled the birth and mutant growth of the internet.

Modern “maps” of the internet can indeed look like sprawling clusters of star systems, pulsing with light and color. But the “weird combination of physical and conceptual things," Betsy Mason remarks at Wired, results in such an abstract entity that it can be visually illustrated with an almost unlimited number of graphic techniques to represent its hundreds of millions of users. When the internet began as ARPANET in the late sixties, it included a total of four locations, all within a few hundred miles of each other on the West Coast of the United States. (See a sketch of the first four “nodes” from 1969 here.)

By 1973, the number of nodes had grown from U.C.L.A, the Stanford Research Institute, U.C. Santa Barbara, and the University of Utah to include locations all over the Midwest and East Coast, from Harvard to Case Western Reserve University to the Carnegie Mellon School of Computer Science in Pittsburgh, where David Newbury’s father worked (and still works). Among his father’s papers, Newbury found the map above from May of '73, showing what seemed like tremendous growth in only a few short years.

The map is not geographical but schematic, with 36 square “nodes”—early routers—and 42 oval computer hosts (one popular mainframe, the massive PDP-10, is sprinkled throughout), and only naming a few key locations. Significantly, Hawaii appears as a node, linked to the mainland by satellite. Just above, you can see an update from just a few months later, now representing 40 nodes and 45 computers. “The network,” writes Selina Chang, “became international: a satellite link connected ARPANET to nodes in Norway and London, sending 2.9 million packets of information every day.”

These early networks of global interconnectivity, created by the Defense Department and used mostly by scientists, predate Tim Berners-Lee and CERN’s development of the World Wide Web in 1991, which opened up the enormous, expanding alternate universe we know as the internet today (and was, coincidentally, invented around the same time as the Hubble Telescope). Though maps aren’t territories (a 1977 ARPANET “logical map” disclaims total accuracy in a note at the bottom), these early representations of the internet resemble medieval maps of the cosmos next to the beautiful complexity of glowing colors we see in 21st century infographics like the authoritatively-named “The Internet Map.”

via Vice

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

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