The Blob Opera Lets You Create Festive Music with Ease: An Interactive Experiment Powered by Machine Learning

Tis the season when we’re never more than one singalong Messiah away from wishing we had a better voice.

David Li’s interactive Blob Opera allows us to pretend.

The machine learning experiment takes its cues from four opera singers—soprano Olivia Doutney, mezzo-soprano Joanna Gamble, tenor Christian Joel, and bass Freddie Tong—who provided it with 16 hours of recorded material.

The result is truly an all-ages activity that’s much easier on the ears than most digital diversions.

Click and drag one of the gummy-bodied blobs up and down to change its pitch.

Pull them forwards and backwards to vary their vowel sounds.

Once all four are in position, the three you’re not actively controlling will harmonize like a heavenly host.

You can disable individual blobs’ audio to create solos, duets and trios within your composition.

Press record and you can share with the world.

The blobs don’t sing in any discernible language, but they can do legato, staccato, and shoot up to incredibly high notes with a minimum of effort. Their eyes pinwheel when they harmonize.

As Li describes to co-producer Google Arts & Culture below, it’s not the original singers’ voices we’re channeling, but rather the machine learning model’s understanding of the operatic sound.

Click the pine tree icon and the blobs will serenade you with the most-searched Christmas carols.

Begin your collaboration with Blob Opera here.

If you find yourself wanting more, have a go at the interactive Choir Li created for Adult Swim.

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine. She most recently appeared as a French Canadian bear who travels to New York City in search of food and meaning in Greg Kotis’ short film, L’Ourse.  Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Why Humans Are Obsessed with Cats

A house cat is not really a fur baby, but it is something rather more remarkable: a tiny conquistador with the whole planet at its feet —Abigail Tucker

As part of its Annals of Obsession video series, The New Yorker invited science journalist Abigail Tucker, author of The Lion in the Living Room, to reflect on “how felines took over the Internet, our homes, and our lives.”

It goes without saying that cats and humans have co-existed for a very long time.

Most of us are acquainted with the high regard in which Ancient Egyptians held Felis catus.

And we may know something of their seafaring history, beginning with the Vikings and continuing on through Unsinkable Sam and other celebrated ship’s cats.

An overwhelming majority of us have spent the last decade or so glued to online examples of their antics—riding robot vacuumsreacting with terror to cucumbers, and pouncing on humans, some of whom have had the temerity to write and record voiceovers that suggest they have insight as to what goes on inside a cat’s hat. (As if!)

It’s gratifying to hear Tucker echo what cat lovers have long suspected (and emblazoned on t-shirts, coffee mugs, and decorative pillows)—the cats, not the owners, are the ones running the show.

Forgive us. Dogs have owners. Cats have staff.

Cats took a commensal path to domestication, motivated, then as now, by the food they knew to be stored in our settlements.

Tucker describes it as a series of cat controlled takeovers—a process of artificial selection, undertaken on the cats’ own initiative:

House cats are supremely adaptable. They can live anywhere and, while they must have plenty of protein, they eat practically anything that moves, from pelicans to crickets, and many things that don’t, like hot dogs. (Some of their imperiled feline relatives, by contrast, are adapted to hunt only a rare species of chinchilla.) House cats can tweak their sleeping schedules and social lives. They can breed like crazy.

In certain ways the house cat’s rise is tragic, for the same forces that favor them have destroyed many other creatures. House cats are carpetbaggers, arrivistes, and they’re among the most transformative invaders the world has ever seen—except for Homo sapiens, of course. It’s no coincidence that when they show up in ecosystems, lions and other megafauna are usually on their way out.

Aloof as many of their number may be, cats have engineered things in such a way as to be physically irresistible to most humans:

Their big heads and big eyes are so cute!

Their fur is so soft!

We can carry them around!

Dress them in doll clothes (sometimes)!

Their cries mimic the cries of hungry human babies, and elicit a similar response from their human caregivers.

We may not love litter box duty, but with 1 in 3 humans infected by Toxoplasma gondii, we’ll likely be tethered to them for all eternity.

For better or worse, we love them. And so do dog lovers. They just don’t know it yet.

But do not ever imagine that the feeling is reciprocal.

They’re archcarnivores who cannot open their own cans. As Tucker wryly observes:

I think it’s fair to say that we are obsessed and they are not.

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How Humans Domesticated Cats (Twice)

Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine. She loves cats, but most recently appeared as a French Canadian bear who travels to New York City in search of food and meaning in Greg Kotis’ short film, L’Ourse.  Follow her @AyunHalliday.

The Uncanny Children’s Book Illustrations of Sigmund’s Freud’s Niece, Tom Seidmann-Freud

In 1919, Sigmund Freud published “The ‘Uncanny,’” his rare attempt as a psychoanalyst “to investigate the subject of aesthetics.” The essay arrived in the midst of a modernist revolution Freud himself unwittingly inspired in the work of Surrealists like Salvador Dali, Andre Breton, and many others. He also had an influence on another artist of the period: his niece Martha-Gertrud Freud, who started going by the name “Tom” after the age of 15, and who became known as children’s book author and illustrator Tom Seidmann-Freud after she married Jakob Seidmann and the two established their own publishing house in 1921.

Seidmann-Freud’s work cannot help but remind students of her uncle’s work of the unheimlich—that which is both frightening and familiar at once. Uncanniness is a feeling of traumatic dislocation: something is where it does not belong and yet it seems to have always been there. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that the Seidmann-Freud’s named their publishing company Peregrin, which comes from “the Latin, Peregrinos,” notes an exhibition catalogue, “meaning ‘foreigner,’ or ‘from abroad’—a title used during the Roman Empire to identify individuals who were not Roman citizens.”

Uncanny dislocation was a theme explored by many an artist—many of them Jewish—who would later be labeled “decadent” by the Nazis and killed or forced into exile. Seidmann-Freud herself had migrated often in her young life, from Vienna to London, where she studied art, then to Munich to finish her studies, and finally to Berlin with her husband. She became familiar with the Jewish philosopher and mystic Gershom Scholem, who interested her in illustrating a Hebrew alphabet book. The project fell through, but she continued to write and publish her own children’s books in Hebrew.

In Berlin, the couple established themselves in the Charlottenburg neighborhood, the center of the Hebrew publishing industry. Seidmann-Freud’s books were part of a larger effort to establish a specifically Jewish modernism. Tom “was a typical example of the busy dawn of the 1920s,” Christine Brinck writes at Der Tagesspiegel. Scholem called the chain-smoking artist an “authentic Bohèmienne” and an “illustrator… bordering on genius.” Her work shows evidence of a “close familiarity with the world of dreams and the subconscious,” writes Hadar Ben-Yehuda, and a fascination with the fear and wonder of childhood.

In her 1923 The Fish’s Journey, Seidmann-Freud draws on a personal trauma, “the first real tragedy to have struck her young life when her beloved brother Theodor died by drowning.” Other works illustrate texts—chosen by Jakob and the couple’s business partner, poet Hayim Nahman Bialik—by Hans Christian Andersen and the Brothers Grimm, “with drawings adapted to the landscapes of a Mediterranean community,” “a Jewish, socialist notion… added to the texts,” “and the difference between boys and girls made indecipherable,” the Seidmann-Freud exhibition catalogue points out.

These books were part of a larger mission to “introduce Hebrew-speaking children to world literature, as part of establishing a modern Hebrew society in Palestine.” Tragically, the publishing venture failed, and Jakob hung himself, the event that precipitated Tom’s own tragic end, as Ben-Yehuda tells it:

The delicate, sensitive illustrator never recovered from her husband’s death. She fell into depression and stopped eating. She was hospitalized, but no one from her family and friends, not even her uncle Sigmund Freud who came to visit and to care for her was able to lift her spirits. After a few months, she died of anorexia at the age of thirty-eight.

Seidmann-Freud passed away in 1930, “the same year that the liberal democracy in Germany, the Weimar Republic, started it frenzied downward descent,” a biography written by her family points out. Her work was burned by the Nazis, but copies of her books survived in the hands of the couple’s only daughter, Angela, who changed her name to Aviva and “emigrated to Israel just before the outbreak of World War II.”

The “whimsically apocalyptic” illustrations in books like Buch Der Hasengeschichten, or The Book of Rabbit Stories from 1924, may seem more ominous in hindsight. But we can also say that Tom, like her uncle and like so many contemporary avant-garde artists, drew from a general sense of uncanniness that permeated the 1920s and often seemed to anticipate more full-blown horror. See more Seidmann-Freud illustrations at 50 Watts, the Freud Museum London, KulturPort, and at her family-maintained site, where you can also purchase prints of her many weird and wonderful scenes.

via 50 Watts

Related Content:

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

A Free Stanford Course on How to Teach Online: Designed for Middle & High School Teachers

Update: You can find the video recording of the workshop here.

This past spring, teachers and students everywhere got an abrupt introduction to online learning. When classrooms moved online in March, many teachers experimented with online pedagogy for the first time, often without much training or support. To help ease this transition, the Stanford Online High School–an independent high school that operates entirely online–launched a free course designed to help teachers get comfortable teaching in this new medium. 7,000 teachers signed up. To continue providing support, an updated version of this free course will be offered again this weekend.

Teaching Your Class Online” will take place this Saturday (November 21) and Sunday (November 22),  and run from 9:00 am – 11:00 am Pacific time each day. (Update: The lectures are now available online.) Designed mainly for instructors teaching grades 7-12, the course can be helpful for elementary and college instructors as well. Topics covered will include “challenges [such] as student engagement and discussion (including for large groups, breakout rooms, and hybrid groups), effective communication with students and parents, assessment and curriculum adaptation for online pedagogy, and strategies for supporting both students and yourselves.”

Teaching Your Class Online” is supported by Stanford Online High School and Stanford Continuing Studies. You can enroll in the course on the Continuing Studies website here.

If you know any teachers who could benefit from this free course, please feel free to share this post with them.

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GPS Tracking Reveals the Secret Lives of Outdoor Cats

We track sharksrhino, and bears, so why not Boo Boo KittyPeanut, and Pumpkin?

The Long Island feline residents volunteered—or more accurately, were volunteered—by their human companions to participate in a domestic cat movement study as part of the international Cat Tracker project.

Each beast was outfitted with a GPS tracker-enhanced harness, which they wore for a week.

(Many cat owners will find that alone something of an achievement.)

In total, almost a thousand households in four countries took part—the United StatesNew ZealandAustralia, and the UK.

Scientists were particularly interested to learn the degree of mayhem these cherished pets were visiting on surrounding wildlife in their off hours.

Anyone who’s been left a present of a freshly murdered baby bunny, mole, or wingless bat can probably guess.

It’s a considerable amount, though by and large the domesticated participants stuck close to home, rarely traveling more than two football fields away from the comforts of their own yards. The impulse to keep the food bowl within easy range confines their hunting activities to a fairly tight area. Woe to the field mice who set up shop there.

Their movements also revealed the peril they put themselves in, crossing highways, roads, and parking lots. Researcher Heidy Kikillus, who tracked cats in New Zealand, reported that a number of her group’s subjects wound up in a fatal encounter with a vehicle.

Generally speaking, gender, age, and geography play a part in how far a cat roams, with males, younger animals, and country dwellers covering more ground. Unsurprisingly, those who have not been neutered or spayed tend to have a freer range too.

“Without the motivations of food and sex, most cats seem content to be homebodies,” zoologist Roland Kays, one of the US Project leaders, noted.

American citizen scientists who’d like to enroll their cat can find information and the necessary forms on the Cat Tracker website.

The cat-less and those with indoor cats can enjoy photos of select participants and explore their tracks here.

And what better fall craft than a DIY cat tracking GPS harness?

via National Geographic

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

Central Park Bird Watcher Christian Cooper Writes DC Comics Graphic Novel: It’s Now Free Online

Write what you know.

It’s oft-cited advice for writers both beginning and established.

Thus, Jules, the teenage boy at the center of Christian Cooper’s It’s a Bird, the first entry in DC Comics’ digital-first anthology series Represent!, is a birdwatcher, like the author.

And the binoculars that were a 50th birthday gift from Cooper’s father, a Korean War vet and Civil Rights activist, serve as models for the ones Jules is none too thrilled to receive, despite his grandpa’s belief that they possess special powers.

Cooper, who was was Marvel’s first openly gay writer and editor, introducing a number of queer characters before devoting himself to science writing, also draws on recent personal history that is more fraught.

Although the location has shifted from New York City’s Central Park to a suburban green space bordered with large, well-kept homes, including Jules’, the young man’s encounter with an indignant white woman and her off-leash dog should ring any number of bells.

In late May, Cooper became the subject of national news, when he confronted Amy Cooper (no relation) over her violation of park rules, tired of the havoc uncontrolled dogs wreak on birds who call the park home. Ms. Cooper escalated things quickly by calling 911, claiming she was being threatened by an African-American man. Cooper recorded the incident as a matter of protocol, and his sister shared the video on social media later that day.

The same day that George Floyd was killed by police in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

What Jules sees through the lenses of his grandfather’s binoculars contains an element of fantasy, but is also deeply rooted in reality—the faces of Amidou Diallo, Breonna Taylor, Floyd, and other Black people who have died as a result of excessive, unwarranted police force.

When DC first approached him about tapping his experience for his first comic in over two decades, Cooper was reluctant:

I thought, “I don’t know, DC Comics? Superheroes? Not sure how that’s going to work.” We kicked around a couple of ideas. They said they had gotten the title, I’m not sure exactly from who, but somebody pretty high up in the DC food chain: “It’s a Bird.” It took me half a beat. “Oh…I get what you did there.” Once I had the title, the story wrote itself.

It’s a Bird artist Aletha E. Martinez, a pioneer whose 20-year career has included inking such superhero heavy hitters as the Black Panther, Iron Man, Batgirl, and X-Men, also pulled from personal experience when rendering Jules’ expression after the binoculars reveal the circumstances of George Floyd’s death:

I saw that look on my son’s face three years ago after we left North Carolina, and we were coming home to New York. We were stopped going into the airport. We travel so often—cons, in and out of the country. These two security guards started to harass us. They wanted to take my purse. “Where are you from?” You hear my voice, there’s no accent in my voice. It ended up with them saying, “You should travel with your passport.” This is after backing us up in the corner, and why? I’m an American citizen born on this soil, so is my son. I don’t need a passport to travel within my country. This is our day and age.

I watched my son’s face change, and he never quite walked up again looking happy going to the airport. Now he has on armor. That face you see? That’s my kid.

It’s a Bird can be read for free on participating digital platforms (see links below), and Cooper is hopeful that it will inspire young people to find out more about some of the real life characters Jules spies through his binoculars. To that end, an appendix touches on some biographical details:

We not only give the bare bones details of how they died, but also a little bit about them, because they were people. They weren’t just want happened to them. I hope young people (are) inspired to keep the focus where it needs to be, which is on those we have lost and how we keep from losing more. There are people who are invested in distracting us right now, and there are people who want to distract us from their failures on so many other things. That’s not what this moment is about. This moment is about the ones we’ve lost, and how we’re going to keep from losing any more. And if you’re not talking about that, I don’t want to hear it.

Read Represent!: It’s a Bird for free on readdc.comComixologyAmazon Kindle, Apple Books, and other participating digital platforms.

Read an interview with Cooper and Martinez, from which the quotes in this post are drawn, on DC’s blog.

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

Watch an Epic Drum Battle, Pitting a 9-Year-Old Girl Against Foo Fighter Dave Grohl

Foo Fighter Dave Grohl, formerly of Nirvana, and Nandi Bushell, an Ipswich elementary schooler, have something in common besides their incredible command of the drums.

By all appearances, both seem to have benefited from being reared by grounded, encouraging parents.

Nandi, at 10, likely has a few more years under her folks’ roof despite her growing renown—she’s jammed with Lenny Kravitz, gone viral in last year’s Argos Christmas advert, and most recently, matched Grohl beat for beat in an epic drum battle, above.

Nandi demonstrated a natural rhythmic ear at an early age, bobbing along to the Teletubbies while still in diapers.

Of course, everything she’s achieved thus far can be considered to have occurred at an early age.

On the other hand, it was half a lifetime ago when her father, a software engineer and self-described “massive music fan” introduced the then-5-year-old to “Hey, Jude,” as part of a weekly tradition wherein he makes pancakes with his children while sharing YouTube links to favorite songs.

She was immediately taken with Ringo Starr, and the joy he exuded behind his kit.

Shortly thereafter, she passed a math exam, earning a trip to Toys “R” Us to pick out a promised treat. Her eye went immediately to a £25 kiddie drum set.

The plastic toy was a far cry from the professional kit she uses today, but she’s shown herself to be adaptable in a recent series of video tutorials for Daniel Bedingfield’s “Gonna Get Through This,” encouraging viewers who lack equipment to bang on whatever’s handy—colanders, pot lids, biscuit tins… She recommends kebab skewers tipped with cellophane tape for the stickless.

Her YouTube channel definitely reveals a preference for hard rock.

Her father, John, dislikes playing publicly, but occasionally accompanies her on guitar, hoping she’ll grow accustomed to playing with other people.

Documenting his daughter’s performances lies more within his comfort zone as he told Drum Talk TV in a very glitchy, early-pandemic virtual interview. Asked by host Dan Shinder to share tips for other parents of young drummers, particularly girls, he counsels exposing them to as many musical genres as possible, nurturing their desire to play, and resolving to have as much fun as possible.

It’s clear that Nandi is having a ball twirling her sticks and whaling on the drum part of Foo Fighters’ hit “Everlong,” in a video uploaded last month.

Grohl got wind of the video and the challenge contained therein.

He took the bait, responding with an “epic” video of his own, playing a set of drums borrowed from his 11-year-old daughter:

I haven’t played that song since the day I recorded it in 1997, but Nandi, in the last week I’ve gotten at least 100 texts from people all over the world saying ‘This girl is challenging you to a drum-off, what are you going to do?’

Look, I’ve seen all your videos. I’ve seen you on TV. You’re an incredible drummer. I’m really flattered that you picked some of my songs… and you’ve done them all perfectly. So today, I’m gonna give you something you may not have heard before. This is a song called “Dead End Friends” from a band called Them Crooked Vultures… now the ball is in your court.

(Fast forward to the final thirty seconds if you want to see the ultimate in happy dances.)

The young challenger calls upon the rock Gods of old—BonzoBakerPeartMoon—to back her side for “THE GREATEST ROCK BATTLE IN THE HISTORY OF ROCK!!!”

(In addition to drum lessons, and participation in the Ipswich Rock Project and  junior jam sessions, it looks like her acting classes at Stagecoach Performing Arts Ipswich are so paying off.)

Five days after Grohl threw down his gauntlet, she’s back on her drum throne, clad in a preteen version of Grohl’s buffalo check shirt and black pants, her snare bearing the legend “Grohl rocks.”

That sentiment would surely please Grohl’s mother, Virginia, author of From Cradle to Stage: Stories from the Mothers Who Rocked and Raised Rock Stars.

A born entertainer in his mother’s opinion, Grohl didn’t take up music until he was around the age Nandi is now, after which it monopolized his focus and energy, leading to a disastrous 6th grade report card.

Rather than freaking out about general education dips, Virginia, a public school teacher, was supportive when the opportunity arose for him to tour Europe at 17 with the Washington, DC band Scream after the departure of drummer Kent Stax.

Wise move. Her son may be a high school drop-out, but he’s using his fame to shine a spotlight on the concerns of teachers, who are essential workers in his view. Check out his essay in The Atlantic, in which he writes that he wouldn’t trust the U.S. Secretary of Percussion to tell him how to play “Smells Like Teen Spirit” if they had never sat behind a drum set:

It takes a certain kind of person to devote their life to this difficult and often-thankless job. I know because I was raised in a community of them. I have mowed their lawns, painted their apartments, even babysat their children, and I’m convinced that they are as essential as any other essential workers. Some even raise rock stars! Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine, Adam Levine, Josh Groban, and Haim are all children of school workers (with hopefully more academically rewarding results than mine).

He’s also leaving time in his schedule for another drum battle:

Watch more of Nandi Bushell’s drum and guitar covers on her parent-monitored YouTube channel.

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

A Free Stanford Course on How to Teach Online: Watch the Lectures Online

Earlier this month, Stanford’s Online High School offered (in partnership with Stanford Continuing Studies) a free, five-day course “Teach Your Class Online: The Essentials.” With many schools starting the next academic year online, this course found a large audience. 7,000 teachers signed up. Aimed at middle and high school teachers, the course covered “general guidelines for adapting your course to an online format, best practices for varied situations, common pitfalls in online course design, and how to troubleshoot student issues online.”

The videos from “Teach Your Class Online: The Essentials” are all now available online. You can watch them in sequential order, moving from top to bottom, here. Or watch them on this Stanford hosted page. Day 1 (above) provides a general introduction to teaching online. See topics covered in Days 2-5 below.

Please feel free to share these videos with any teachers. And if anyone watches these lectures and takes good class notes (ones other teachers can use), please let us know. We would be happy to help share them with other teachers.

Finally, just to give you a little background, Stanford’s Online High School has operated as a fully-online, independent, accredited high school since 2006. Stanford Continuing Studies provides open enrollment courses to adults worldwide. All of its courses are currently online. For anyone interested, Coursera also offers a specialization (a series of five courses) on online learning called the Virtual Teacher. It can be explored here.

 

Day 2

  • Getting Specific: Situations and Tools
  • Science: Labs in Online Pedagogy

 

Day 3

  • Online Classroom Example Clips
  • Building and Maintaining a Classroom
    Community

 

Day 4

  • Review of Submitted Sample Lesson Drafts
  • Troubleshooting Obstacles to Success in the Online Environment

 

Day 5

  • Math: Using Writing Tablets and Whiteboards
  • Modern Languages: Tips for Highly Interactive Class During Which Students Actively Speak and Write in the Target Language
  • Humanities: Productive Classroom Conversations About Challenging Subjects
  • Closing Thoughts

 

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