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“‘AI’ is pretty much just shorthand for mediocre”

Just read through “You sound like a bot” by Adi Robertson in the Verge. I hadn’t really put my finger on the right word for my feelings about AI until reading that article but that’s it: it feels very mediocre.

If you want to get a rough overview of how the average frontend engineer might feel about a JavaScript framework, ChatGPT is useful enough. If you’re willing to ignore the questionable origins of the training data in use, Midjourney can be useful for rapid image generation for an early storyboard.

But as of right now, the output always feels meh, “yeah ok”. Never really surprises you with a unique perspective, or an unexpected visual language. That vibe is only becoming stronger as AI developers continue to sand off the “rough” edges on their products.

Maybe that will change. As Robertson says, “Maybe the schism between artists and AI developers will resolve, and we’ll see more tools that amplify human idiosyncrasy instead of offering a lowest-common-denominator replacement for it.”

That’s not happening any time soon. One reason is that artists have been given about 1,000 reasons to distrust AI, and I think that it is only widespread artistic use and input that could actually lead to that sort of breakthrough.

Another reason: spewing mediocrity is a pretty strong sweet spot for AI. AI is useful as a summarizer so long as you take the response with a grain of salt and follow up on sources. Case in point: Elicit seems pretty cool! Listen to this ShopTalk Show episode with Maggie Appleton for more.

Anyways, maybe we’ll eventually get to the point where AI has that human “spark”, who knows. Maybe it’ll happen next month and I’ll eat my words. Until then, as most of the content we experience online becomes more grey and sludgy, the personal will become far more valuable.

In Anil Dash’s article “The Internet Is About to Get Weird Again” for Rolling Stone late last year, he says that “the human web, the one made by regular people, is resurgent”. He places a lot of emphasis on the breakdown of the content silos we’ve relied on for so many years, which definitely seems like the major catalyst for the shift. But AI’s growing mediocrity will be the force that drives it home and really makes the human web stick.

(Related side point: clearly I need to read Filterworld by Kyle Chayka.)


Edit 21 Feb 2024: Maybe I should eat my words sooner? OpenAI just came out with Sora. Which is impressive! But… IDK, it still feels meh somehow? Maybe it’s just because it’s still early days, we’ll see.

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Bell ringing as abstraction, exercise, and communion

Can’t remember how we got talking about it, but another member of the Brooklyn Conservatory Chorale told me that she’s very in to English Change Ringing.

I thought I hadn’t heard of it before, but I have heard it, many times since I lived over there for 10 years. Listen to an example from St Paul’s on YouTube. I didn’t know it had a name, guess I always assumed it was sort of random.

If you listen to it closely you can start to recognize patterns. And if you live in the US, you might realize how this sound feels somewhat historical, not something that we hear frequently even in places with lots of churches. It is somewhat-to-very rare in the US depending upon where you live (see map of North American bell towers).

I started poking around online. For a concise description of English Change Ringing, you can’t beat the one on the New York Trinity Ringers website. Would love to go hear their bells some time.

But for a wonderfully in-depth presentation, it’s worth reading the article “Campanologomania” by Katherine Hunt published in issue 53 of Cabinet magazine in spring 2014.

(Incidentally, how have I never come across Cabinet before? “We believe that curiosity is the very basis of ethics insofar as a deeper understanding of our social and material cultures encourages us both to be better custodians of the world and at the same time allows us to imagine it otherwise.” Spot on. I hope they’re not done for… The last issue was winter ‘21 / spring ‘22, and the last event was in late 2020 as far as I can tell.)

In the article, Hunt goes through the origins of English Change Ringing as almost a drunken group pastime on idle bells, to a sort of obsession by folks – men, really – of many classes, to something that was seen as somewhat lowly due to the physical exertion it required, to the qualities it shares with modern twelve-tone music and the invention of the dumbbell (quite literally a dumb bell).

It’s hard to describe how physically in-tune the bell ringers must be to achieve the many permutations in a multi-hour peal. Hunt says:

While change ringers must understand the shape of the particular method they are ringing, they do not follow written notation for each and every change. Nor do they memorize the individual changes. Rather, the practice relies on the ringers internalizing the patterns of the method, perhaps by looking at notation that shorthands the whole method, showing only the key moments at which the permutations change course in order to exhaust all the possible orders. Ringers know principally by doing: they anticipate when two bells will have to swap places in the following round, and they feel their way as a group through the ringing of all the orders of the rows. Change ringing’s linguistic potential may have been exploited by Stedman and Mundy, but in the bell-tower it is a sweaty, communal, and profoundly corporeal activity.

That reliance on communality reminds me of many Musarc performances, though those are of course much more contemporary and experimental (and choral, not bells!).

Anyways, clearly there is something very attractive about this to me… The trouble is the meeting lengths and frequency, it would be really tough to get involved at this point in my life. Maybe something for when I’m 50+.

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Side note: I was about to post a link to Outhwaites of Hawes, a traditional ropemaking business that started before 1840. The building is their workshop and also effectively houses a museum. It was lovely to walk through there and see the rope being made, including the incredible ropes required for change ringing. But sadly, it looks like they closed almost exactly a year ago.

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Some thoughts about making a Donald Judd-esque table

Most of the NYC crew from the Eames Institute took a little field trip to 101 Spring Street yesterday. There was a lot I found beautiful, and a few things that gave me pause.

But one of the things I most enjoyed inspecting was Donald Judd’s big 14-seater whitewood table in the kitchen / dining space on the second floor. Clearly well-loved, and slightly more rough-and-ready than some of his other furniture. It was good fun to have a close look at the dining chairs too, though I’m more interested in the form there. Don’t look too comfortable.

This is a very broad overview of some points to consider if I ever want to make a Judd-esque table.

Read more

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Color contrast tools to check against APCA

EL introduced me to contrast.tools recently, it uses the Advanced Perception of Color Algorithm (APCA) to check the accessibility of your text based on the desired colors and the font weight + size. But importantly, it also provides a lookup table to verify how you should (possibly, probably) interpret things.

I think that APCA is being floated as the new contrast algorithm for WCAG 3.0? But I’d need to look in to it more to be sure. Apparently APCA Readability Criterion (ARC) might be a new standard for visual contrast.

Side note: I kind of wish we could get away from acronyms-within-acronyms-within-acronyms in the accessibility standards world…

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New role, big emotions, top of the tops

A few recent happenings.

I started working with the excellent Eames Institute last week as Engineering Lead. 🎉 It’s been good fun so far, and seems like a great team. A heck of a lot of things I care about are rolled up in that one role.

B is a gorgeous ball of wants and needs and joy and sorrow. He watched The Snowman last night with Sam for the first time while I was cooking dinner, I’m not sure he was emotionally prepared for the ending. 😢 And I wasn’t emotionally prepared for his reaction.

Recently, I got B a top for the first time in preparation for a long Thanksgiving flight. It didn’t capture his attention as much as I was hoping, hey ho, but on the flip side, I absolutely love it. I’d forgotten how fun tops are, and it reminded me of the most recent exhibition by the Eames Institute on their toy collection, particularly their tops. I can completely understand why someone would collect them, and could imagine slipping in to that…

Then I started looking in to their history, I had no idea how many different types of top there are! There’s even one that flips over while in motion to spin on its stem. Looking in to tippe tops took me to the absolutely glorious Grand Illusions channel on YouTube run by ex-BBC presenters Hendrik Ball and George Auckland and collector + presenter Tim Rowett. Besides their video about the tippe top, they have well over 500 videos on many other toys from Tim’s 20,000+ toy collection. This one particularly tickled me. I used to have that dolphin pen! And my god, do I want one of these.

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Probably more than you ever wanted to know about this site

A while back, Manuel Moreale asked me to take part in People and Blogs, a “series where [he asks] interesting people to talk about themselves and their blogs”. After a very major delay on my part, I finally answered his questions.

If you want to find out more than you probably ever wanted to know about this site, that’s the place to look!

Read Manuel’s interview.

Also, I highly recommend subscribing to his RSS. I always love when one of his posts pops up in my feed reader, whether it’s a People and Blogs post or anything else.

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“When the blazing sun is gone”

I just remembered… Another one of my favorites from the Kronos Quartet anniversary concert was Laurie Anderson’s piece “Nothing Left but Their Names”. I knew I would like it, but I didn’t expect to also learn another verse of Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.

I wish I’d written it down because the way she introduced it made me laugh, something about it being rather apocalyptic for a lullaby. But I thought I’d be able to look it up afterward, so I didn’t. It doesn’t seem to be part of her original lyrics, so take my word for it.

I do remember that she sang “where” instead of “what”, which I liked.

Twinkle twinkle little star
How I wonder where you are!
Up above the world so high,
Like a diamond in the sky.
Twinkle twinkle little star
How I wonder where you are!

When the blazing sun is gone,
When he nothing shines upon,
Then you show your little light,
Twinkle, twinkle, all the night.
Twinkle, twinkle, little star,
How I wonder where you are!

Turns out there are five verses in total. B will be happy to hear that, it’s all he asks for at night.