Hello. My name is Duncan and this is “Hello From Duncan” - a newsletter that I send every ten days which rounds up all the things I’ve been working on, reading, looking at, thinking about and generally “into”.
Today’s issue is rather longer than normal. Turns out I had a bit more to say about cryptoart, but there are also chunky sections on membership programmes, carbon offsetting, modular synth, and sonification for journalism.
Make yourself a cup of tea, settle into a comfortable chair, and read on.
One of the big surprises of my 2020 roundup posts was the popularity of the one on building community. Since I published it, I’ve heard of four or five similar peer support communities starting up as a direct result. I’m so happy that it could be a positive inspiration for so many people.
To continue to push things forward, I wanted to highlight a Twitter thread on building community from David Spinks. It’s packed with tasty little nuggets of wisdom, here are a few:
There’s loads more in the thread.
There’s a new bit of research published in Nature Food this week that breaks down emissions from each stage of the global food chain for every year from 1990 to 2015. Turns out that “food systems” are responsible for about a third of all human-caused greenhouse gas emissions.
Turns out that “food miles” contribute less to food emissions than packaging does. And that 96% of the emissions from transporting food come from distributing it locally or regionally, rather than sending it internationally.
Translation: don’t feel bad about buying fruit and veg that has been shipped half way around the world. But do try to eat less meat and dairy.
I’ve been interested in membership programmes for quite a long time, but always felt strong impostor syndrome around the subject - as if I wouldn’t have anything that people would be willing to pay for. I’ve always pushed away the idea, telling myself that I’m not ready yet, that my audience isn’t big enough, etc.
After I asked for suggestions in my last newsletter about how I should sell an online course about data art that I’ve made, I got thinking about it again - and hit that same impostor syndrome blockage.
But then it occurred to me that I already have a small group of data visualization friends with similar but complementary skills to me, whose work I admire greatly. All of us have been putting out free resources onto the web for years, but all of us feel like our audiences aren’t quite large enough to support a paid membership programme. So why not team up?
Collaborating on a membership programme effectively minimises the impostor syndrome, because we can each be confident in each other’s contributions being valuable, even if we’re not as confident in our own. We also get to combine our networks, reaching far more people than we’d be able to reach solo.
So we’re now in full-on membership programme research and development mode. There are a lot of open questions that we have around costs, structures, inclusion, what members get, and so on. But they’re solveable - especially once we get a few members and we can directly ask them what they want.
That’s where you come in! If you’d be interested in subscribing to some sort of “Duncan & Friends” dataviz membership programme (it will definitely not be called that), and getting loads of fun, interesting and cool stuff in return, then I would love to hear from you. In return for your feedback, we’ll give you a super-cheap beta tester subscription rate (which you can keep for a good while after we launch properly (forever?)), and you get to shape the whole thing into exactly what you want it to be. Sound good? Hit reply, write the magic words “I’m in!” and we can go from there.
Just look at this! A universe as a set of nested folders. So much to explore. I particularly recommend finding a “life” folder, picking an animal within, and inspecting their thoughts.
I’m really stacked with work at the moment, which is actually a nice feeling after having a fairly quiet final quarter of last year.
At Possible, I’ve been working hard on the launch of our Car Free Megacities campaign, which aims to show how London, Paris and New York could eliminate the health, safety and environmental dangers posed by private motor vehicles. We had a great launch event last week, with speakers from all three cities. I’ll have more to share on the dataviz end of things in due course.
Elsewhere I’m doing some illustrations of survey data for a corporate client, using a generative art approach to reflect the uncertainty in the data. It’s really nice to have a project where I can stretch my creative muscles a little, and I’m very excited about how it’s shaping up. When there’s something to share, I’ll be sure to share it.
Then there’s Loud Numbers - my data sonification podcast - which I think will be launched towards the end of May / start of June. We’re thinking of doing a small online event to mark the launch - a sonification festival of sorts, where folks who already sonify data and folks who want to learn can get together to share knowledge. It’ll be free to attend. If that sounds like something you’d be interested in contributing to or helping out with, then I’d love to hear from you.
One of the craziest things I read in 2020 was Hundred Rabbits’ account of sailing across the Pacific - a 51-day journey that the artist duo describe as “the hardest thing we’ve ever done”. It’s now been released as an eBook for $5, with a few extra sections and recipes. You should definitely pick it up if you’re curious about the day-to-day reality of what sailing a boat across an ocean actually involves. It gets pretty dramatic.
Following on from my writings last time round about the environmental costs of crypoart, a bunch of people sent me words to the effect of “but the environmental issues with cryptoart will be solved soon, right?”, to which I replied with a link to this article by excellent internet person Everest Pipkin, titled: “HERE IS THE ARTICLE YOU CAN SEND TO PEOPLE WHEN THEY SAY “BUT THE ENVIRONMENTAL ISSUES WITH CRYPTOART WILL BE SOLVED SOON, RIGHT?””.
The most common thing I heard is that the Ethereum blockchain, which most cryptoart services run on, is planning to switch from the energy-intensive “Proof of Work” system to a more environmentally-friendly “Proof of Stake” system in Summer 2021. To which Pipkin writes:
Ethereum “has been moving” to proof of stake for almost as long as it has existed. It has been so long that “Eth 2.0 PoS Coming Soon!” is something of a running joke. In all that time, any time the ecological cost of PoW is brought up, PoS is touted as the redemption just over the hill- if we can just hang on another few months, the whole network will be green. Meanwhile, the Ethereum networks’s annual energy consumption is hovering around 24.43 TWh — roughly equivalent to the entire country of Ecuador. Even if Ethereum does manage to make the switch someday, we truly don’t have time to wait.
Pipkin also touches a lot on the social justice issues around cryptocurrencies, which are explicitly designed so that you make money from the people who have entered the market after you.
The value continuing to rise absolutely depends on ever more users joining the network, using coins, and competing to mine them.
I strongly suspect that this is why a lot of people who were totally uninterested in digital art a few years ago are now extremely interested in digital art. Because it’s a way to create a buzz that makes their cryptocurrency holdings more valuable.
One more thing on this. I’ve seen a lot of people saying that they’ve bought offsets for their NFTs, as if that’s some sort of “get out of jail free” card.
I have complicated feelings about offsets. Many folks in the climate movement reject them completely (often with an analogy to the “indulgences” that the Catholic Church sold in the Middle Ages for people to offset their sins). There are a lot of shady companies selling offsets that turn out to not actually void the carbon they promise to, and a lot of reputable firms doing the same thing unknowingly.
On the other hand, financing a transition from a society that is actively destroying the planet to one that is not actively destroying the planet is not simple. Offsets are one of several ways to fund projects that take us closer to that goal, especially projects in developing countries, where public finance is much harder to come by. There is value in that, even if not all those projects work out.
I offset my personal and business emissions (as well as reducing them on an annual basis to the extent that I can), by buying high-quality offsets from offset certification body Gold Standard. I’m proud to be “carbon neutral” in this way (and declare myself as such on my website), but I don’t kid myself that doing this in any way compensates for the environmental damage that those emissions are causing.
If pressed, I would probably say something like “offsets can be useful, but rarely deliver what they promise and are woefully insufficient”. They’re merely a single brick in the wall of climate solutions, and a small, weird-shaped brick at that.
So please don’t think that paying someone in a developing country to plant trees on their farmland and totally change their way of life just so that you can drop a new NFT (or fly around the world on holiday) is in any way a solution to the climate crisis. It’s just not that simple.
Bored of your old DSLR camera? Hack it to run Minecraft instead.
It’s a fairly simple patch - a bassline sequenced from the Arturia Keystep 37, running through the Pittsburgh Modular Lifeforms SV-1b. Micro Ornament and Crime in Quantermain mode delivering generative pitches and gates to Mutable Instruments Rings, which in turn is processed by Monsoon. And Music Thing Modular Radio Music playing a thunderstorm soundscape. All of that gets mixed together in the Doepfer A-135-2 Quad VCA/Voltage-Controlled Mixer, which is piped to my computer where it’s recorded in Reaper. It’s okay if you didn’t understand any of that. To be honest I barely understand it myself.
I needed to record this one because it’s been holding up my progress on my 100 Days of Modular project. I patched it about three or four days ago, but left it in place because I liked it so much. Now it’s recorded, I can unpatch it again and progress.
I had the ambition this year to record and release an EP each quarter. That still feels like a feasible thing to do?
Woah. Finnish newspaper Helsingin Sanomat created a variable-width font that reflects the loss of Arctic sea ice. Beautiful stuff, and totally free to download and use. See it in action in this nice piece by Gabrielle Mérite.
In January I wrote a chunky article for DataJournalism.com about the use of sonification in journalism, and it’s now published. It’s called “Making Numbers Louder”. Here’s a little snippet:
There’s a real art to creating effective parameter mappings, and in most cases you won’t know whether something works until you try it. The sheer range of sound properties that you can interact with, as well as their combinations, make it a highly exploratory process. Some mappings are continuous, while some are discrete. Some are obvious, while some are subtle. Many connect emotionally with the listener in interesting ways – for example, choice of instrumentation, the tempo of a track, or even the musical key are all highly emotionally charged.
I think Dry Cleaning might be my favourite new band. I’m loving the strange, stream-of-consciousness vocals, combined with the stripped-back post-punk backing. They’re weird and joyful at the same time, which is a common theme among bands I love. Best place to start? Probably Scratchcard Lanyard.
Phew. That was a long message, wasn’t it? To reward those of you who made it to the bottom, I’ve plotted a few extra postcards from my Cistercian Numbers series. I’ll send one each to the first two people to reply to this message with their postal address. Good luck!