Phone Relief: The Ultimate Hands-Free Headset (1993)

We have featured some great acts of imagination when it comes to telephone technology–from the worlds’ first mobile phone shown in this 1922 British Pathé newsreel, to when Fritz Lang “invented” the video phone in Metropolis in 1927. “Phone Relief,” the ultimate hands-free headset marketed in 1993, will never qualify as a great act of imagination. But it does make for a great kitschy ad.

via @moodvintage

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The Great Illustration That Accompanied Eddie Van Halen’s Application to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (1987)

Throughout the past week, we’ve read many tributes to Eddie Van Halen and his endless capacity for innovation. Stylistically, EVH changed the sound of rock with tapping, a technique that let him play rapid arpeggios with two hands on the guitar’s fretboard. (Exhibit A is here.) Technically, he created a unique sound by fashioning his own guitar, the Frankenstrat, which melded the sounds of Gibson and Fender guitars. And what’s more, he patented three inventions, one of which came with the dazzling illustration above. Edward L. Van Halen’s 1987 patent for a “musical instrument support” was described as follows:

A supporting device for stringed musical instruments, for example, guitars, banjos, mandolins and the like… The supporting device is constructed and arranged for supporting the musical instrument on the player to permit total freedom of the player’s hands to play the instrument in a completely new way, thus allowing the player to create new techniques and sounds previously unknown to any player. The device, when in its operational position, has a plate which rests upon the player’s leg leaving both hands free to explore the musical instrument as never before. Because the musical instrument is arranged perpendicular to the player’s body, the player has maximum visibility of the instrument’s entire playing surface.

What would this device look like? The graphic above visualizes it all. Find the illustration in the patent application here.

Back in 2015, Van Halen wrote a piece in Popular Mechanics discussing his patents and other technical work on guitars and amps. For those who want to delve deeper into his tinkering, read the article here.

via Bradford Peterson & Boing Boing

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The Story of the SynthAxe, the Astonishing 1980s Guitar Synthesizer: Only 100 Were Ever Made

What is the musical instrument most thoroughly of the 1980s? Many would say the “keytar,” a class of synthesizer keyboards shaped and worn like a guitar. Their relatively light weights and affordable prices, even when first brought to market, put keytars within the reach of musicians who wanted to possess both the wide sonic palette of digital synthesis and the inherent cool of the guitarist. This arrangement wasn’t without its compromises: few keytar players enjoyed the full range of that sonic palette, to say nothing of that cool. But in 1985, a new hope appeared for the synthesizer-envying guitarist and guitar-envying synthesist alike: the SynthAxe.

Created by English inventors Bill Aitken, Mike Dixon, and Tony Sedivy (and funded in part by Richard Branson’s Virgin Group), the SynthAxe made a quantum leap in the development of synthesizer-guitars, or guitar-synthesizers. Unlike a keytar, it used actual strings — not just one but two independent sets of them — that when played could control any synthesizer compatible with the recently introduced Musical Instrument Digital Interface (MIDI) standard.

As Guitarist magazine editor Neville Marten demonstrates in the contemporary promotional video at the top of the post, this granted anyone who could play the guitar command of all the sounds cutting-edge synthesizers could make.

Not that mastery of the guitar translated immediately into mastery of the SynthAxe: even the most proficient guitarist had to get used to the unusually sharp angle of its neck, its evenly spaced frets, and the set of keys embedded in its body. (“That is the point, it’s not a guitar,” as Aitken took pains to explain.) You can see Lee Ritenour make use of both the SynthAxe’s strings and keys in the 1985 concert clip above. Nicknamed “Captain Fingers” due to his sheer dexterity, Ritenour had been in search of ways to expand his sound, experimenting with guitar-synthesizer hybrid systems even in the 70s. When the SynthAxe came along, not only did he record a whole album with it, that album’s cover is a painting of him with the striking new instrument in hand.

So is the cover of Atavachron, the first album Allan Holdsworth recorded after meeting the SynthAxe’s creators at a trade show. No guitarist would take up the SynthAxe with the same fervor: Holdsworth, seen playing it with a breath controller (!) in the clip above, would continue to use it on his recordings up until his death in 2017. “People used to write notes on my amp, asking me to stop playing the SynthAxe and play the guitar instead,” he told Guitar World in his final interview that year. “But now people often ask me, ‘We’d love to hear you play the SynthAxe — did you bring it?’ I rarely play it onstage anymore because it’s too costly to take on the road and it requires a lot of equipment.”

The amount of associated gear no doubt put many an aspiring synthesizer-guitarist off the SynthAxe. (“It’s about as portable as a drum kit isn’t,” writes early adopter John Hollis.) So must the price tag, a cool £10,000 back in 1985. This didn’t put off guitarist Alec Stansfield, whose enthusiasm for the SynthAxe as was such that he joined the company, having “knocked long and hard on their door until they gave me a job as a production engineer.” Alas, he writes, “the instrument was never a commercial success and eventually the company ceased trading. Fewer than 100 instruments had been produced in total. In the final months I was paid with a SynthAxe system since cash was tight” — a system he shows off in the video above

Stansfield sold off his SynthAxe in 2013, but what has become of the others? One of Ritenour’s SynthAxes eventually found its way into the possession of Roy Wilfred Wooten, better known as Future Man of Béla Fleck and the Flecktones. “Over a period of time, he began modifying it into an almost entirely new instrument: the SynthAxe Drumitar,” writes Computer History Museum curator Chris Garcia. “This system, which replaced the strings as the primary triggering mechanism, allowed Wooten to play the ‘drums’ using the guitar-like device.” In the concert clip just above, you can behold Future Man playing and explaining this “SynthAxeDrumitar,” sounds like a drum kit but looks like a guitar — though rather vaguely, at this point. Call it SynthAxe-meets-Mad Max.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, 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, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

Dear Facebook, This is How You’re Breaking Democracy: A Former Facebook Insider Explains How the Platform’s Algorithms Polarize Our Society

Is this what we want? A post-truth world where toxicity and tribalism trump bridge building and consensus seeking? —Yaël Eisenstat

It’s an increasingly familiar occurrence.

A friend you’ve enjoyed reconnecting with in the digital realm makes a dramatic announcement on their social media page. They’re deleting their Facebook account within the next 24 hours, so shoot them a PM with your email if you’d like to stay in touch.

Such decisions used to be spurred by the desire to get more done or return to neglected pastimes such as reading, painting, and going for long unconnected nature walks.

These announcements could induce equal parts guilt and anxiety in those of us who depend on social media to get the word out about our low-budget creative projects, though being prone to Internet addiction, we were nearly as likely to be the one making the announcement.

For many, the break was temporary. More of a social media fast, a chance to reevaluate, rest, recharge, and ultimately return.

Legitimate concerns were also raised with regard to privacy. Who’s on the receiving end of all the sensitive information we’re offering up? What are they doing with it? Is someone listening in?

But in this election year, the decision to quit Facebook is apt to be driven by the very real fear that democracy as we know it is at stake.

Former CIA analyst, foreign service officer, andfor six monthsFacebook’s Global Head of Elections Integrity Ops for political advertising, Yaël Eisenstat, addresses these preoccupations in her TED Talk, “Dear Facebook, This is How You’re Breaking Democracy,” above.

Eisenstat contrasts the civility of her past face-to-face ”hearts and minds”-based engagements with suspected terrorists and anti-Western clerics to the polarization and culture of hatred that Facebook’s algorithms foment.

As many users have come to suspect, Facebook rewards inflammatory content with amplification. Truth does not factor into the equation, nor does sincerity of message or messenger.

Lies are more engaging online than truth. As long as [social media] algorithms’ goals are to keep us engaged, they will feed us the poison that plays to our worst instincts and human weaknesses.

Eisenstat, who has valued the ease with which Facebook allows her to maintain relationships with far-flung friends, found herself effectively demoted on her second day at the social media giant, her title revised, and her access to high level meetings revoked. Her hiring appears to have been purely ornamental, a palliative ruse in response to mounting public concern.

As she remarked in an interview with The Guardian’s Ian Tucker earlier this summer:

They are making all sorts of reactive changes around the margins of the issues, [to suggest] that they are taking things seriously – such as building an ad library or verifying that political advertisers reside in the country in which they advertising – things they should have been doing already. But they were never going to make the fundamental changes that address the key systemic issues that make Facebook ripe for manipulation, viral misinformation and other ways that the platform can be used to affect democracy.

In the same interview she asserted that Facebook’s recently implemented oversight board is little more than an interesting theory that will never result in the total overhaul of its business model:

First of all, it’s another example of Facebook putting responsibility on someone else. The oversight board does not have any authority to actually address any of the policies that Facebook writes and enforces, or the underlying systemic issues that make the platform absolutely rife for disinformation and all sorts of bad behaviour and manipulation.

The second issue is: it’s basically an appeal process for content that was already taken down. The bigger question is the content that remains up. Third, they are not even going to be operational until late fall and, for a company that claims to move fast and break things, that’s absurd.

Nine minutes into her TED Talk, she offers concrete suggestions for things the Facebook brass could do if it was truly serious about implementing reform:

  • Stop amplifying and recommending disinformation and bias-based hatred, no matter who is behind itfrom conspiracy theorists to our current president.
  • Discontinue personalization techniques that don’t differentiate between targeted political content and targeted ads for athletic footwear.
  • Retrain algorithms to focus on a metrics beyond what users click or linger on.
  • Implement safety features that would ensure that sensitive content is reviewed before it is allowed to go viral.

Hopefully viewers are not feeling maxed out on contacting their representatives, as government enforcement is Eisenstat’s only prescription for getting Facebook to alter its product and profit model. And that will require sustained civic engagement.

She supplements her TED Talk with recommendations for artificial intelligence engineer Guillaume Chaslot’s insider perspective op-ed “The Toxic Potential of YouTube’s Feedback Loop” and The Filter Bubble: How the New Personalized Web Is Changing What We Read and How We Think by‘s former Executive Director, Eli Pariser.

Your clued-in Facebook friends have no doubt already pointed you to the documentary The Social Dilemma, which is now available on Netflix. Or perhaps to Jaron Lanier’s Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now.

Read the transcript of Yaël Eisenstat’s TED Talk here.

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

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.

Google Introduces 6-Month Career Certificates, Threatening to Disrupt Higher Education with “the Equivalent of a Four-Year Degree”

I used to make a point of asking every college-applying teenager I encountered why they wanted to go to college in the first place. Few had a ready answer; most, after a deer-in-the-headlights moment, said they wanted to be able to get a job — and in a tone implying it was too obvious to require articulation. But if one’s goal is simply employment, doesn’t it seem a bit excessive to move across the state, country, or world, spend four years taking tests and writing papers on a grab-bag of subjects, and spend (or borrow) a large and ever-inflating amount of money to do so? This, in any case, is one idea behind Google’s Career Certificates, all of which can be completed from home in about six months.

Any such remote educational process looks more viable than ever at the moment due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, a condition that also has today’s college-applying teenagers wondering whether they’ll ever see a campus at all. Nor is the broader economic harm lost on Google, whose Senior Vice President for Global Affairs Kent Walker frames their Career Certificates as part of a “digital jobs program to help America’s economic recovery.” He writes that “people need good jobs, and the broader economy needs their energy and skills to support our future growth.” At the same time, “college degrees are out of reach for many Americans, and you shouldn’t need a college diploma to have economic security.”

Hence Google’s new Career Certificates in “the high-paying, high-growth career fields of Data Analytics, Project Management, and User Experience (UX) Design,” which join their existing IT Support and IT Automation in Python Certificates. Hosted on the online education platform Coursera, these programs (which run about $300-$400) are developed in-house and taught by Google employees and require no previous experience. To help cover their cost Google will also fund 100,000 “need-based scholarships” and offer students “hundreds of apprenticeship opportunities” at the company “to provide real on-the-job training.” None of this guarantees any given student a job at Google, of course, but as Walker emphasizes, “we will consider our new career certificates as the equivalent of a four-year degree.”

Technology-and-education pundit Scott Galloway calls that bachelor’s-degree equivalence the biggest story in his field of recent weeks. It’s perhaps the beginning of a trend where tech companies disrupt higher education, creating affordable and scalable educational programs that will train the workforce for 21st century jobs. This could conceivably mean that universities lose their monopoly on the training and vetting of students, or at least find that they’ll increasingly share that responsibility with big tech.

This past spring Galloway gave an interview to New York magazine predicting that “ultimately, universities are going to partner with companies to help them expand.” He adds: “I think that partnership will look something like MIT and Google partnering. Microsoft and Berkeley. Big-tech companies are about to enter education and health care in a big way, not because they want to but because they have to.” Whether such university partnerships will emerge as falling enrollments put the strain on certain segments of the university system remains to be seen, but so far Google seems confident about going it alone. And where Google goes, as we’ve all seen before, other institutions often follow.

Note: You can listen to Galloway elaborate on how Google may lead to the unbundling of higher ed here. Listen to the episode “State of Play: The Sharing Economy” from his Prof G podcast:

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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, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

What Did the Roman Emperors Look Like?: See Photorealistic Portraits Created with Machine Learning

We can spend a lifetime reading histories of ancient Rome without knowing what any of its emperors looked like. Or rather, without knowing exactly what they looked like: being the leaders of the mightiest political entity in the Western world, they had their likenesses stamped onto coins and carved into busts as a matter of course. But such artist’s renderings inevitably come with a certain degree of artistic license, a tendency to mold features into slightly more imperial shapes. Seeing the faces of the Roman Emperors as we would if we were passing them on the street is an experience made possible only by high technology, and high technology developed sixteen centuries after the fall of the Roman Empire at that.

“Using the neural-net tool Artbreeder, Photoshop and historical references, I have created photoreal portraits of Roman Emperors,” writes designer Daniel Voshart. “For this project, I have transformed, or restored (cracks, noses, ears etc.) 800 images of busts to make the 54 emperors of The Principate (27 BC to 285 AD).”

The key technology that enables Artbreeder to convincingly blend images of faces together is what’s called a “generative adversarial network” (GAN). “Some call it Artificial Intelligence,” writes Voshart, “but it is more accurately described as Machine Learning.” The Verge’s James Vincent writes that Voshart fed in “images of emperors he collected from statues, coins, and paintings, and then tweaked the portraits manually based on historical descriptions, feeding them back to the GAN.”

Into the mix also went “high-res images of celebrities”: Daniel Craig into Augustus, André the Giant into Maximinus Thrax (thought to have been given his “a lantern jaw and mountainous frame” by a pituitary gland disorder like that which affected the colossal wrestler). This partially explains why some of these uncannily lifelike emperors — the biggest celebrities of their time and place, after all — look faintly familiar. Though modeled as closely as possible after men who really lived, these exact faces (much like those in the artificial intelligence-generated modern photographs previously featured here on Open Culture) have never actually existed. Still, one can imagine the emperors who inspired Voshart’s Principate recognizing themselves in it. But what would they make of the fact that it’s also selling briskly in poster form on Etsy?

Visit the Roman Emperor Project here. For background on this project, visit here.

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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, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

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