What happens when Ulysses Owens Jr–a Jazz musician and jazz educator at Juilliard–hears Nirvana’s “In Bloom” for the first time (minus the drum parts), and then attempts to drum along? What is he listening for? How does he immediately craft an appropriate drum part? And how does it compare to Dave Grohl’s original? Watch above, and you can see how it unfolds…
Thirteen years ago here on Open Culture, we first featured Rome Reborn 2.2, a digital 3D model of the ancient metropolis at the height of its glory in the fourth century. And that rebirth has continued apace ever since, and just last week bore the fruit of Rome Reborn 4.0, through which you can get a flying tour in the video above. Intercut with the computer-generated reconstructions is footage of the ruins of the very same parts of the city as they exist in Rome today. The opportunity for comparison thus provided allows us to appreciate not just the upgrades in the latest Rome Reborn’s level of detail, but also its degree of realism.
With each revision, the fourth-century Eternal City recreated in Rome Reborn looks more like reality and less like a video game. But that doesn’t mean you can’t get the same thrill of exploring it that you would from a video game, which is part of the appeal of loading up the latest version of the model on the virtual-reality app Yorescape, a product of the “virtual tourism” company Flyover Zone Productions founded by Rome Reborn’s project leader Bernard Frischer.
And it is Frischer himself who leads the in-app tour of “sites exemplifying the city’s geography, markets, temples, and much, much more,” enriched by “Time Warps spread around the city that allow you to toggle between the view today and the view from the same vantage point in antiquity.”
This is heady stuff indeed for enthusiasts of ancient Rome, who will no doubt be eager to see for themselves the new and improved digital models of ancient Roman structures like the Circus Maximus, the Arch of Titus, the Porticus Liviae, and the Temple of Minerva. These and many others besides appear in the Rome Reborn 4.0 demo reel just above, which shows off the culmination of 27 years of work so far by Frischer and his team. A digital archaeologist at Indiana University, Professor Frischer has pointed out still-absent features to come, such as “avatars infused with AI” with whom the twenty-first-century tourist can interact. We’ll have to wait for future iterations to do so, but surely we can summon the patience by remembering that Rome isn’t reborn in a day.
Every piece of technology has a precedent. Most have several different types of precedents. You’ve probably used (and may well own) an eBook reader, for instance, but what would have afforded you a selection of reading material two or three centuries ago? If you were a Jacobean Englishman of means, you might have used the kind of traveling library we featured in 2017, a handsome portable case custom-made for your books. (If you’re Tom Stoppard in the 21st century, you still do.) If you were Napoleon, who seemed to love books as much as he loved military power — he didn’t just amass a vast collection of them, but kept a personal librarian to oversee it — you’d take it a big step further.
“Many of Napoleon’s biographers have incidentally mentioned that he […] used to carry about a certain number of favorite books wherever he went, whether traveling or camping,” says an 1885 Sacramento Daily Union article posted by Austin Kleon, “but it is not generally known that he made several plans for the construction of portable libraries which were to form part of his baggage.” The piece’s main source, a Louvre librarian who grew up as the son of one of Napoleon’s librarians, recalls from his father’s stories that “for a long time Napoleon used to carry about the books he required in several boxes holding about sixty volumes each,” each box first made of mahogany and later of more solid leather-covered oak. “The inside was lined with green leather or velvet, and the books were bound in morocco,” an even softer leather most often used for bookbinding.
To use this early traveling library, Napoleon had his attendants consult “a catalogue for each case, with a corresponding number upon every volume, so that there was never a moment’s delay in picking out any book that was wanted.” This worked well enough for a while, but eventually “Napoleon found that many books which he wanted to consult were not included in the collection,” for obvious reasons of space. And so, on July 8, 1803, he sent his librarian these orders:
The Emperor wishes you to form a traveling library of one thousand volumes in small 12mo and printed in handsome type. It is his Majesty’s intention to have these works printed for his special use, and in order to economize space there is to be no margin to them. They should contain from five hundred to six hundred pages, and be bound in covers as flexible as possible and with spring backs. There should be forty works on religion, forty dramatic works, forty volumes of epic and sixty of other poetry, one hundred novels and sixty volumes of history, the remainder being historical memoirs of every period.
In sum: not only did Napoleon possess a traveling library, but when that traveling library proved too cumbersome for his many and varied literary demands, he had a whole new set of not just portable book cases but even more portable books made for him. (You can see how they looked packed away in the image tweeted by Cork County Library above.) This prefigured in a highly analog manner the digital-age concept of recreating books in another format specifically for compactness and convenience — the kind of compactness and convenience now increasingly available to all of us today, and to a degree Napoleon never could have imagined, let alone demanded. It may be good to be the Emperor, but in many ways, it’s better to be a reader in the 21st century.
Note: This post was originally published in 2017. Given that Napoleon is back in the news, with the new Ridley Scott film, we’re bringing it back.
In the fall of 1998, pop music changed forever — or at least it seems that way today, a quarter-century later. The epochal event in question was the release of Cher’s comeback hit “Believe,” of whose jaggedly fractured vocal glissando no listener had heard the likes of before. “The glow-and-flutter of Cher’s voice at key points in the song announced its own technological artifice,” writes critic Simon Reynolds at Pitchfork, “a blend of posthuman perfection and angelic transcendence ideal for the vague religiosity of the chorus.” As for how that effect had been achieved, only the tech-savviest studio professionals would have suspected a creative misuse of Auto-Tune, a popular digital audio processing tool brought to market the year before.
As its name suggests, Auto-Tune was designed to keep a musical performance in tune automatically. This capability owes to the efforts of one Andy Hildebrand, a classical flute virtuoso turned oil-extraction engineer turned music-technology entrepreneur. Employing the same mathematical acumen he’d used to assist the likes of Exxon in determining the location of prime drilling sites from processed sonar data, he figured out a vast simplification of the calculations theoretically required for an algorithm to put a real vocal recording into a particular key.
Rapidly adopted throughout the music industry, Hildebrand’s invention soon became a generic trademark, like Kleenex, Jell-O, or Google. Even if a studio wasn’t using Auto-Tune, it was almost certainly auto-tuning, and with such subtlety that listeners never noticed.
The producers of “Believe,” for their part, turned the subtlety (or, technically, the “smoothness”) down to zero. In an attempt to keep that discovery a secret, they claimed at first to have used a vocoder, a synthesizer that converts the human voice into manipulable analog or digital signals. Some would also have suspected the even more venerable talkbox, which had been made well-known in the seventies and eighties by Earth, Wind & Fire, Stevie Wonder, and Roger Troutman of Zapp. Though the “Cher effect,” as it was known for a time, could plausibly be regarded as an aesthetic descendant of those devices, it had an entirely different technological basis. A few years after that basis became widely understood, conspicuous Auto-Tune became ubiquitous, not just in dance music but also in hip-hop, whose artists (not least Rappa Ternt Sanga T-Pain) used Auto-Tune to steer their genre straight into the currents of mainstream pop, if not always to high critical acclaim.
Used as intended, Auto-Tune constituted a godsend for music producers working with any singer less freakishly skilled than, say, Freddie Mercury. Producer-Youtuber Rick Beato admits as much in the video just above, though given his classic rock- and jazz-oriented tastes, it doesn’t come as a surprise also to hear him lament the technology’s overuse. But for those willing to take it to ever-further extremes, Auto-Tune has given rise to previously unimagined subgenres, bringing (as emphasized in a recent Arte documentary) the universal language of melody into the linguistically fragmented arena of global hip-hop. As a means of generating “digital soul, for digital beings, leading digital lives,” in Reynolds’ words, Auto-Tune does reflect our time, for better or for worse. Its detractors can at least take some consolation in the fact that recent releases have come with something called a “humanize knob.”
Andrew Ng–an AI pioneer and Stanford computer science professor–has released a new course called Generative AI for Everyone. Designed for a non-technical audience, the course will “guide you through how generative AI works and what it can (and can’t) do. It includes hands-on exercises where you’ll learn to use generative AI to help in day-to-day work.” The course also explains “how to think through the lifecycle of a generative AI project, from conception to launch, including how to build effective prompts,” and it discusses “the potential opportunities and risks that generative AI technologies present to individuals, businesses, and society.” Given the coming prevalence of AI, it’s worth spending six hours with this course (the estimated time needed to complete it). You can audit Generative AI for Everyone for free, and watch all of the lectures at no cost. If you would like to take the course and earn a certificate, it will cost $49.
A quick heads up on a deal: From now until December 2, you can get the first month of Coursera Plus for just $1. (It normally costs $59 per month.) With a Coursera Plus plan, you will have unlimited access to 6,000 courses from top universities and companies. This includes Professional Certificate programs offered by companies like Google, Meta, and IBM, covering such topics as: Data Analytics, Project Management, UX Design, Cybersecurity, Business Intelligence, and more. The cost of the actual certificate is included in the plan.
There was a time when we imagined that most ancient sculpture never had any color except for that of the stone from which it was hewed. Doubt fell upon that notion as long ago as the eighteenth century, when archaeological digging in Pompeii and Herculaneum brought up statues whose color had been preserved, but only in recent years has it come to be presented as an exploded myth. Though some of the coverage of the false “whiteness” of ancient Egyptian, Greek, and Roman sculpture has divided along drearily predictable twenty-first-century cultural battle lines, this moment has also presented an opportunity to stage fascinating, even groundbreaking exhibitions.
Take Chroma: Ancient Sculpture in Color, which ran from the summer of last year to the spring of this year at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. You can still see some of its displays in the Smarthistory video at the top of the post, in which art historians Elizabeth Macaulay and Beth Harris discuss the “world of Technicolor” that was antiquity, the Renaissance origins of the “idea that ancient sculpture was not painted,” and the modern attempts to reconstruct the sculptural color schemes almost totally lost to time.
Architect Vinzenz Brinkmann goes deeper into these subjects in the video from the Met itself just above, paying special attention to the museum’s bust of Caligula — not the finest emperor Rome ever had, to put it mildly, but one whose face has become a promising canvas for the restoration of color.
You can see much more of Chroma in the Art Trip tour video just above. Its wonders include not just genuine pieces of ancient sculpture, but strikingly colorful reconstructions of a finial in the form of a sphinx, a Pompeiian statue of the goddess Artemis, a battle-depicting side of the Alexander Sarcophagus, and “a marble archer in the costume of a horseman of the peoples to the north and east of Greece,” to name just a few. You may prefer these historically educated colorizations to the austere monochrome figures you grew up seeing in textbooks, or you may appreciate after all the kind of elegance that only centuries of ruin can bestow. Either way, your relationship to the ancient world will never be quite the same.
Participants in these studies were assigned to play one of two parts – teacher or learner. Partner pairs were seated in separate rooms, accessible to each other by microphones. The teacher read the learner a list of matched words they’d expected to remember shortly thereafter. If the learner flubbed up, the teacher was to administer an electric shock via a series of labelled switches, upping it by 15-volts for each successive error. The microphones ensured that the teacher was privy to the learner’s increasingly distressed reactions – screams, desperate protestation, and – at the highest voltage – radio silence.
Should a teacher hesitate, they’d be reminded that the parameters of the experiment, for which they were earning $4.50, required them to continue. They also received reassurance that the painful shocks caused no permanent tissue damage.
Here’s the thing:
The teachers were innocent as to the experiment’s true nature. They thought the study’s focus was punishment’s effect on learning ability, but in fact, Milgram was studying the limits of obedience to authority.
The learners were all in on the ruse. They received no shocks. Their responses were all feigned.
If our eyes don’t deceive us, the Milgram experiment that the AI imagines is even more extreme than the original. It appears all participants, including those waiting for their turn, are in the same room.
As someone commented on Bluesky, the new social media platform on which Ullman shared his hypothetical playsets, “the subtle details the AI has got wrong here are the stuff of nightmares.”
AI’s faithful recreation of the LEGO figurines’ physical limitations can’t really capture the faux guards’ brutality – making their prisoners clean out toilets with their bare hands, stripping them naked, and depriving them of food and beds. Their power abuses were so wanton, and the prisoners’ distress so extreme, that the planned duration of two weeks was scrapped six days in.
It’s worth noting that all the student participants came to the study with clean bills of physical and mental health, and no histories of criminal arrest.
No word on whether he has plans to continue experimenting with AI-engineered LEGO playset proposals featuring historic experiments of psychology and cognitive science.
Follow on Bluesky if you’re curious. You’ll need to register for a free account and apply for an invite code, if you haven’t already… wait, are we setting ourselves up to be unwitting participants in another psych experiment?
The invention of siblings Miklós and Étienne Vadász, the world’s first pocket record player caused a stir when it was introduced a century ago, nabbing first prize at an international music exhibition and finding favor with modernist architect Le Corbusier, who hailed it for embodying the “essence of the esprit nouveau.”
Unlike more recent portable audio innovations, some assembly was required.
It’s fair to assume that the Stanford Archive of Recorded Sound staffer deftly unpacking antique Mikiphone components from its cunning Sony Discman-sized case, above, has more practice putting the thing together than a nervous young fella eager to woo his gal al fresco with his just purchased, cutting edge 1924 technology.
A period advertisement extols the Mikiphone’s portability …
Fits in a jacket pocket
Goes in a lady’s handbag
Will hang on a cycle frame
Goes in a car door pocket
Ideal for picnics, car jaunts, river trips
…but fails to mention that in order to enjoy it, you’d also have to schlep along a fair amount of 78 RPM records, whose 10-inch diameters aren’t nearly so pocket and purse-compatible.
Maison Paillard produced approximately 180,000 of these hand-cranked wonders over the course of three years. When sales dropped in 1927, the remaining stock was sold off at a discount or given away to contest winners.
These days, an authentic Mikphone can fetch $500 and upward at auction. (Beware of Mikiphonies!)
Here’s a holiday season deal worth mentioning. For Cyber Monday, The Great Courses (formerly The Teaching Company) is offering every course for $40-$60. The sale runs until midnight on Monday (11/27/2023).
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