The Freddy litmus test, bathroom waters, and more corvid exchanges

Nightmare fuel, or an antidote to nightmare fuel? I can’t decide if wacky Freddy Krueger and friends is the former or the latter. Please click in to this tweet, watch this clip, then hit reply (it’ll go only to me) and tell me if this added to our reduced your pile of nightmare material.

(crossed my timeline via a retweet from @grahamskipper.)

"That's fine, but I really want the bathrooms." National treasure John Waters donated his vast art collection to the Baltimore Museum of Art as a restricted gift (which means they can’t remove pieces and sell them.) In exchange, he asked that they name the museum’s bathrooms after him. This very entertaining short CBC radio interview, which is available as an audio recording and a transcript, takes you through his rationale, how he thinks about art, and what he means by “good bad taste”. Here’s a snippet where he describes what his collection is about:

“All art that lasted in history made people insane when it first came out. Andy Warhol put the abstract expressionists out of business in one night with that soup can. People were furious. Then minimalism made people furious. Graffiti art made people furious. Performance art made people furious.

So I love art that makes you furious, because I'm in on it. You finally learn to see differently if you like art. And it's a secret club. It's like a biker gang where you learn a special language, you have to dress a certain way. I love all the ridiculous elitism about the art world. I think it's hilarious.”

The corvid gift exchange. There have been bananas about this before, the tendencyof crows to trade shiny or otherwise interesting objects for foodstuffs such as whole peanuts and eggs.

M. Crouton is the Twitter handle of Crouton the cow who lives along with a whole host of other animals at the Squirrelwood Equine Sanctuary. The people there told me that they’ve been leaving peanuts out for years and eventually struck up this barter relationship with the corvids.

Also down the thread:

We haven’t tried this with crows, though now I certainly would like to see if we can get similar magic going. The closest we’ve come other than our bird feeders is the deal we have tried to strike with cockroaches - we agree to transport them back outside rather than killing them if we find them inside the house in any state, and they agree to generally stay in the shadows and leave us alone. I’m not sure they fully grasp the terms, but we dutifully keep up our side of the bargain just the same.

Bonus bananas:

These are the bananas I found for you this week. You can hit reply and it will go only to me. Thank you.

Comb jellies, glowing monotremes, and ocean acoustics

What's the animal set up to these days?

This last couple of weeks, I’ve been soothed by what’s going on with our biodiverse neighbors on Earth. As it happened lots of bananas relating to wonderous critters and their superpowers ripened recently. These are stories and imagery that took me away from the pettiness of our current national human nightmares.

You’ll probably never meet a comb jelly, but they are super cool. This crossed my timeline via @kimdraws who said that if they were a sea animal they would want to be one of these.

Since I work with audio waveforms much of the day, you can imagine the appeal, and I wondered what kind of sound emanates from these wavy beings. These folks form a part of what I learned in the article is the “jellyweb”:

Although many of us will never encounter one of these beautiful and highly adapted creatures in the wild, scientists now know that they play a critical role in what’s known as the JellyWeb, a productive food web in the open ocean that consists primarily of soft bodied predators and prey. 

They also remind me a whole lot of the creatures from Vonnegut’s “Sirens of Titan” called Harmoniums, flounder-like beings that live on cave walls and thrive on sound waves rippling through them. And if you’re a writer or world creator and want to think of a scene where things that seem like part of the background reveal themselves as living things, you could do worse than dropping some comb jellies into the scene.

I’ll leave you to click to find out what they look and behave like when they are in the role of predator, but when they are prey it goes down like this:

…the comb jelly employs a different tactic for moving through the water. Instead of gliding forward like an airplane, it undulates like a fast-moving sea snake. At the same time, it changes its body from transparent to milky by pumping calcium across its cell membranes. With the milky color in full effect, the iridescent blue-green spots of the jelly truly shine. The sudden changes in appearance and behavior is thought to startle or confuse would-be predators. And if those should fail to deter a pursuer, the jelly has one more costume change to try: It will curl in on itself, forming a dense ball that resembles an iridescent cinnamon bun, with the animal’s vulnerable mouth buried deep inside. While this last-ditch strategy may result in a nipped wing, Cestum, like many comb jellies, has excellent regenerative capabilities and can regrow lost parts, as long as its mouth is left intact.

No monotreme has glowed before, enter the…platypus? Myessir. These smart scientists examined existing museum specimens of deceased platypus at the Museum of Natural History in Chicago under various types of light, and revealed what had been there all along, unbeknownst to naturalists for hundreds of years. To confirm, they then checked out specimens from the University of Nebraska State Museum. Same deal. They’re not sure exactly what this does for the well-known undercover ducks.

A male platypus (Ornithorhynchus anatinus) museum specimen (FMNH 16612) collected from Tasmania, Australia, photographed under visible light and 385–395 nm ultraviolet (UV) light without and with a yellow camera lens filter. Cyan to green biofluorescence of ∼500 nm is seen in the middle panels. UV absorption is indicated by dark areas in the far right panel.

This paper contains some amazing and very recent sciencing, but it is all buried in dry academic journal style writing. This is exciting, you all! Let it be reflected in cooler prose. The paper ends on this cliffhanger, which is kind of exciting:

Biofluorescence has now been observed in placental New World flying squirrels, marsupial New World opossums, and the monotreme platypus of Australia and Tasmania. These taxa, inhabiting three continents and a diverse array of ecosystems, represent the major lineages of Mammalia. Biofluorescence in mammals is not restricted to a few closely related specialists; instead, it appears across the phylogeny, which begs[banana ed: sic] the question: Is biofluorescence an ancestral mammalian trait?

Found via @nycsouthpaw

Interstitial: Look at this bird that sews! Thank you @modern_goat.

Listening to the sea might be the best way to get a read on what’s going on down there. In what is their third or fourth appearance in the bananas, Sabrina Imler wrote another breathtaking piece in The New York Times. This one is about the emerging science and practice of recording and separating out the sounds that various things make in the depths of the sea. I don’t want to steal too much of this article’s thunder, so a quick summary graf, and then an intriguing piece of the project:

Dr. Lin joins a growing field of acousticians who believe that sound may be the quickest, cheapest way to monitor one of the most mysterious realms of the ocean. A database of deep-sea soundscapes could provide researchers with baseline understanding of healthy remote ecosystems, and singling out the sounds of communities or even individual species can inform scientists when populations are booming.

And dig this taste of what they’re doing:

“Dr. Lin’s recordings reveal a medley of shrill beeps, distant whistles and an underwater chorus of fish that sounds almost like wind gusting through a mountain pass. But what is it all? Dr. Lin and his lab at Academia Sinica are developing a software algorithm to separate the elements of the soundscape into categories: biophony (creatures), geophony (weather, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions) and anthropophony (pesky or insidious human noises, like seismic tests, ships and mining). Then the program will isolate individual sounds, such as dolphin whistles or chattering fish, and could even discover the sounds of new species.

The photos and linked sound clips are just incredible in this piece, and here’s another snippet about the project itself:

Although the researchers are still poring through the data — recordings wrapped up in March — some soundscapes have already provided insight into life in the deep sea. The Minami-Tori Shima recording revealed a chorus of fish that began right after sunset and ended after midnight at depths with no visible light. “It’s really amazing,” Dr. Lin said. He suspects the chorus may be timed with some fish’s daily vertical migration toward the surface at night, although he said he would need to conduct more surveys to confirm this connection.”

One of the many things about this that captured my imagination is the challenge of matching the being to the sound, techniques like using video along with the audio recording to piece together what sound belongs to what undersea friend can run in to some obvious and not-so-obvious problems. Kind of funny that attribution is a big problem here like it is in the digital advertising space, or maybe that’s just where my brain went after a long day.

The feeling I got from this piece, as I read it from my perch in a podcast editing suite, is that the tools we think of as purpose-built for one thing are all useful in ways you can’t even necessarily imagine from your puny vantage point. And doubly so for the senses we habitually expect will be the ones that have the richest and most important information to track. My note: “Everything matters to everything is the feeling I get connecting my current world to this.”

Bonus bananas: Dogs have been companions to us for much much longer than you might think. Check out what is believed to be an ancient paperclip-lookin’ squid.

These are the bananas I have grabbed for you. I hope they give you something to sink your head in to for a little while. You can hit reply and it will go only to me. Thank you.

Green means 'whoa slow down'

The next bunch needs some more time to ripen. See you next week!

With a stop light, green means 'go' and yellow means 'slow down'. With a banana, however, it is quite the opposite. Yellow means 'go', green means 'whoa, slow down', and red means 'where the heck did you get that banana? -Mitch Hedberg

Workshop TikTok, Soundhouse, and Can

One internet, many TikToks. If you’re not-very-online, when you see stories in the news about the various social platforms it can be extremely difficult to get a grasp of the breadth of activity that each platform represents. Right now the three and typically only three kinds of behaviors that cross in to mainstream view as far as “what ARE these platforms anyway” (thinking of TikTok specifically) tend to be: 1. activity related to politics and the political tribes (OMG the K-Pop stans), 2. things that seem like moral panic triggers (OMG China is stealing kids data/OMG kids are misusing their cameraphones to make prurient videos), and 3. stuff having to do with brands (OMG Ocean Spray bought that guy a truck). Those looking for a simple answer to wrap their head around as far as “what is TikTok” or “what is Twitter” end up landing on those kinds of things.

But it ain’t like that, and arguably, it’s never been like that. As one colleague once put it, social media is and always has been a collection of niches. And one of the distinguishing features of even very large social platforms is that with a few exceptions, the tacit rules and behaviors of one group don’t look anything like those of another. That’s why it’s always so fun on Twitter, once every few years or so, when something unexpected happens that crosses all those boundaries and makes it feel like the mass participation platform it so rarely does. Most recently, there was a night when all verified users were accidentally locked out of posting on Twitter (except for retweets, which made for kind of a speaking ghosts effect) and all of us non-verifieds had the platform to ourselves. It was glorious. Most of the time, we’re all in our own circles doing our own things. You can get way the wrong idea by looking at trends and hashtags.

That’s why I was thrilled to come across and share this little pocket of TikTok activity, from long-time mutual @gavinpurcell who has made a lot of fantastic television but also used to run a super fun blog called TV in Japan:

Interstitial: Good things to put on butts

Intimacy and distance. I spent an entire day listening to the loops from Soundhouse, a Barbican exhibit that they ported to online so that you can experience it wherever you are. From the site description:

“In 2018 it took the form of a pop-up venue at the Barbican, with a focus on communal listening and experimental events in a sensory environment for sound. This year, Soundhouse exists here online, and we explore ideas of Intimacy and Distance through three ‘listening rooms’, and four specially commissioned pieces of writing.”

I spent the most time so far with Listening Room 2: Ariana Martinez. True to the title of the exhibition, I found the sounds in these rooms so deeply intimate. It gets deep inside your inner perceptive space in a way few other forms of media can. It rewards patience, sometimes dramatically, and gives you all kinds of unusual and unexpected stimuli.

My favorite scene within room 2 was a recorded voice/singing lesson. I have read very little about the scene, so I only have my direct experience with it to talk about. Somehow hearing two voices instead of a monologue is way more powerful to me. It draws me in much more, and I think that applies to conventional podcasts as well. Maybe I need to hear a hearer. This one hit me deep and viscerally. I wrote some notes about it:

“it’s sounds forming in to music, becoming deliberate and focused and then chest rose as she went up the scale, my lungs filled with wind.”

In other parts of the loop I heard announcements from a distant speaker. I wrote “announcements made me remember the haunting hollow announcements in London at emptying train stations with vaulted ceilings.” And others, artificial tapping and percussive sounds, all of which conjured up emotional reactions and concrete mental pictures. It all felt so much closer to the language of dreams to me than movies and tv shows tend to, with the exception of some of David Lynch’s deliberately dream-like passages. But to that point it felt very much of a piece with the kind of art David Lynch makes.

I recommend letting these things play, and if you can, spending some time doing nothing else but listening. But they work as background soundscapes as well for whatever you’re doing.

Listen at: Soundhouse.

“Like in a football game: you have to watch the ball and know when to come in.” I find musical improvisation thrilling to listen to, fun to analyze, somewhat comprehensible intellectually, but really really challenging to do. I don’t know if it’s that I can’t think fast enough in the context I need to, or I can’t stop thinking enough to let things flow freely, or all of that, or if I just need to reach a certain plane of being where it just happens. I can sing improvised melodies all day, but as an act of performance I’ve found it impenetrable.

I found these comments from the members of Can from a 1989 interview particularly thought-provoking about their approach to musicianship and improvised performance. Other than the arguably out-dated gendering of a concept in one spot, you could easily forget that they are speaking in 1989:

“So what, in the view of Czukay and Karoli, makes a good musician?

Czukay: "I ask you. Is it talent? Is it good hearing? Is it good voice? Fast fingers? Clever brain?"

Karoli: "It is that you hear music in everything around you. That makes a good musician, I think."

Czukay: "It's sort of an inner associative ability to listen to something and get something out of it."

Czukay stresses that listening is central to making good music, and the ability to listen is something which separates the men from the machines: "The listening is always done by the musicians. That's the difference between a band and another kind of constellation where the listening is one-sided. Listening is for me a female aspect, it's the most important aspect in music. It's not so much how you play, how you give out, as how you are able to receive and bring something out as an answer. If all the members of the band are in this situation of listening then you have a really good band."

Karoli: "For most non-Can musicians it would be called jamming. But jamming is not what happened with Can. It was some other thing which grew, it was more of a concept, really."

Czukay again: "A jam, like improvisation with jazz musicians, that means to play along a red line. If you jam, you play and you have all your hooks. But with Can it was play as little as possible and listen as much as possible, and get surprised and react to that, like in a football game: you have to watch the ball and know when to come in."

"What is required from an improvisor is different today", says Karoli. "When Monk and those people improvised, you could hear they were creating something new so they played very few notes. It sounds almost awkward, but it also sounds very powerful. Nowadays people who improvise on that basis play too many notes, because they have practised that style and found they can play it all four times as fast. It's not so much improvising any more, because improvising means doing something unexpected, and nowadays people know too much what they want to play. They should take instruments that they can't play, so they have to look again, they're forced to really play with few means. Instead they have too many means, too many possibilities. It was one of the ideas of the Can concept that the more limitations you have the luckier you are.”

Bonus banana: People are still struggling to remove that U2 album Apple forced on all of its customers six years ago.

Those are the bananas I found for you this week. You can hit “reply” and it’ll go only to me. Thank you.

Floating Odessa, 28 otters, and design fiction

The short tale of the floating potato sorter. This ethereal, Studio Ghibli-esque photo of what purports to be an abandoned Ukrainian potato sorter crossed my timeline recently via Cory Doctorow’s prolific curation from Tumblr.

Fascinating, right? About seven clicks in to tumblr reshares, I learned a few more things but haven’t been able to verify much of the story. First, it’s been going around since at least 2011 and is usually called the “floating castle” or “floating house” of Odessa/Ukraine. Second, some people theorize that the support legs were either removed from the photo by a photoshopper:

…or removed from the building by vandals. The blog post from 2011 suggests that it would usually look like this:

And third, I learned that it’s purported to be about 5 kilometers north of Odessa. So as not to bury the lede, I nearly hurt my eyes and my scrolling hand poking around satellite views of Odessa only to come up empty-handed. It’s definitely not this Floating House in Odessa which is marked by some really amazing slice of life photos of houseboat life.

That was the dead end of the potato sorter quest. But it did impress upon me what a cool place Odessa seems to be. I dug around on Flickr and found beautiful shots of a vibrant and historic port city with great light and a whole lot going on, and, of course, the one landmark of which I am familiar, the Odessa Steps. Most of the photos on Flickr have downloads disabled, but here are a bunch I enjoyed: (muscle and dive, storyteller, boardwalk, beachgoers, braids, and a weird hat).

So ends the tale. If you have any better luck tracking down that potato sorter, hit me up.

A meditation in 28 otters, by Jackie Morris:

The future is a partly broken space. This banana involves the concept of “design fiction,” which upon my first read seems extremely useful for anyone spending time making something new, and I think “something new” can be read pretty expansively. The full quote that the green bold title comes from:

“Just as the present, the future is a partly broken space. The future is a place in which the brand new cohabits and interferes with the old.

Learning how to see and organize these signals is part of the practice of Design Fiction.”

Design fiction is a practice of making artifacts from an imagined possible future, and then using them as a means of thinking about the thing you are intending to create, to challenge your implicit assumptions about how something will or won’t work given an ever-changing present. More from the loosely transcribed Fabien Girardin talk:

“Today, most decision makers look into the future gathering thousands of pages of diagrams, charts, analysis and projections into a “mega doc” with cross references.

That brings some more clarity, but it often fails to bring all the pieces of the puzzle into a whole that is understandable by many.

Design Fiction forces to actually MAKE things to pre-visualize what is really possible with all the drawbacks and nuances. And by “making things,” I mean creating an actual artifact that forces a team to think about the details of a future in a way that writing a story does not.

It does NOT mean to produce written scenarios or stories about a future state.”

This is very different practice than I’ve seen digital agencies, ad firms, UX firms, ethnographic researchers, architects, and product managers try to bite off, and something that involves a completely different part of the researcher’s brains. And also sounds like a hell of a lot of fun. It’s just as prone to being wildly off or focused on the wrong things as any other speculative practice, but it feels like it would spark valuable discussions, observations, tangents, and flights of fancy no matter what. It’d probably get you a lot closer to something you might properly call an “insight” as compared to the dressed up assumptions that usually get called insights in a planning or creative brief.

Read the full transcription on design fiction.

Bonus banana: There’s something about crabs. Apparently animals keep evolving into crab-like things.

These are the bananas I found for you this week. You can hit “reply” and it’ll go only to me. Thank you.

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