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The key to creating gorgeous, glitchy YouTube images: anticipation and deletion

When I was younger, I had a soccer coach who stressed the importance of anticipation. “An-tiiii-ciiiiiii-PAY-shun,” he’d yell at us, while we were diving around for the ball. If we did it right, he promised, we’d be able to do in soccer what Neo does in The Matrix — not, like, stop bullets, but be in the right place at the right time to stop an attack on our goal. I wasn’t too great at it, at least not at first.

But the lesson stuck.

I can hear coach’s voice even now, when I navigate the crush of travelers during New York City’s all-too-frequent rush hours. This is all to say that prediction is key; it’s the difference between getting the ball in the back of the net and whiffing entirely, the gap between getting a seat on a crowded train or having to wait, chastened, for the next one. And, as I recently learned, prediction is the difference between a YouTube video and glitch art.

The other day I came across a Twitter bot, @youtubeartifacts, which tweeted out screenshots and clips from random YouTube videos — but images and videos were bitcrushed and pixelated and kinetic, more abstract painting than encoding error.

There’s a name for this kind of glitched-out aestheticism, and it turns out to have a well-established artistic past. “The bot uses my own variation on an old glitch art technique called ‘datamoshing,’ which basically generates a specific kind of h264 compression glitch which creates the smeared, pixelated sometimes painterly artifacts you see in the output,” says David Kraftsow, the artist behind @youtubeartifacts. (H.264, also known as MPEG-4 Part 10 or Advanced Video Coding, is a video compression standard — for recording, compression, and distribution — widely used across the internet since around 2014, which provides better video quality than earlier ones.)

“It’s actually a somewhat old glitch art project of mine that’s gone through a lot of iterations, the most recent of which is the Twitter bot,” Kraftsow writes to me in an email.

It started as a website in 2009, where anyone could enter a YouTube URL and see specific glitch effects in their browser — but it was hard to maintain, Kraftsow explains, which meant it didn’t last very long. Then, the curators of digital art collective Rhizome asked him to create a more robust version: a desktop app.

“I refashioned the site and had it look specifically for “vlogger” content to generate stills,” he said. “Then a few years ago” — Februrary 2015 — “I made the app into a Twitter bot, which itself has gone through a few versions. The most recent of which generates 4K imagery from a convoluted youtube search that looks for (among other things) vloggers, beauty/cosmetics vids, sports, and nature/landscape videos.”

As Kraftsow mentioned, datamoshing is a type of glitch art — which, in the context of art history, can be broadly defined as art created by corrupting or otherwise manipulating an existing file — that has roots in the net art movement of the early aughts.

One of the most influential examples of the technique was a 2003 video called “Pastell Kompressor,” by the artists Owi Mahn and Laura Baginski. “As basis for ‘pastell compressor’ we have been using time- lapse shootings of clouds drifting by, which we took on the plateaus in the south of france [sic],” they wrote. They ran it through a proprietary codec, called “sorensen- 3,” which blended the French plateaus with a person’s figure. Two years later, the artist Takeshi Murata created “Monster Movie,” which blended footage from a 1981 B-movie and a heavy soundtrack and which is now in the permanent collection at the Smithsonian as perhaps the most influential piece in the datamosh canon.

In 2009, Kanye West would use the technique in his video “Welcome To Heartbreak.”

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Conceptually, datamoshing is pretty easy: To create the most basic version of those dramatic, pixelated effects, all you have to do is take advantage of how videos are encoded. Essentially, there are three kinds of frames, which store compressed images: I-frames, P-frames, and B-frames. As an excellent tutorial has it, I-frames are “inter frames,” which means they contain the frames’ image data.

P-frames are “predictive frames,” which hold abstract information — essentially, they store data for how the video’s pixels move, and nearly nothing else. (B-frames are a little different, because they’re like predictive frames but they’re bi-directional; they don’t have much to do with glitching.) So, to datamosh, all you do is delete the I-frames. Delete the image data — all the identifiable, still images of the video — and you’re left with the abstract, interior information that populates the space between images. You just leave in the ann-tiii-ciii-PAY-shun, the predictions, which on their own produce the hallmark swirl of glitchy pixels that visually define a datamoshed video.

Simple, right?

I decided to try it for myself, starting with something familiar: Verge Science’s excellent video on graphene that came out earlier this week. I cut the video down to 45 seconds using iMovie, which felt like a manageable enough length, then I ran it through Avidemux version 2.5.4 (a free, popular video editor) to delete my I-frames; then I used VLC (an excellent video player) to play back my results. (A good rule of thumb about I-frames is that, because they’re anchor points, they exist at just about every cut. Avidemux identifies them for you — just press the up and down arrow keys to scroll through every single one in a video.)

It took me six attempts and nearly an hour to get from the first 45 seconds of this…

…to this:

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It was a little harder than I thought.

But I persevered.

I believed in my P-frames.

Eventually, I got this.

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It’s like my soccer coach might say: Perseverance is just as important as figuring out where your pixels are going.

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Darren Aronofsky’s Pi day: this week in tech, 20 years ago

There is surprisingly little news about technology and the 1998 World Cup.

The 2018 World Cup wraps up this weekend, and we’ve had lots to say about it — from how streaming video has made watching the games more convenient (unless it completely screws up) to how World Cup memes have made it all the way into Amazon’s Alexa. But in 1998… well, apparently it was the first year that officials used electronic displays during games. There were also a number of World Cup video games, including a ridiculous-looking Japanese arcade game and the first FIFA World Cup game from EA Sports — but these came out during the pre-Cup hype period, not the event itself.

Fortunately, the World Cup wasn’t the only thing people were writing about this week in 1998.

As a person who covers day-to-day technology news, I often wonder how my writing might come off to someone in the future — and whether anyone will even be reading it.

I can’t answer those questions, but I can do the next best thing: look back at what other people were writing 20 years ago.

Here are five stories — big and small — that science and tech enthusiasts might have checked out during the week of July 14th, 1998.

In 1996, the US Navy retrofitted the USS Yorktown as the first “Smart Ship” — an experiment in reducing crew sizes by installing Windows NT computers to run parts of the missile cruiser. Breaking with science fiction tradition, the computers did not gain sentience and attempt to destroy humanity with a robotic battleship. Unfortunately, they did try to divide with a database entry of zero, which locked up the entire system and left the Yorktown dead in the water for nearly three hours.

The incident happened in 1997, but GCN magazine reported it the next summer, and Wired followed up with an in-depth article — which questioned the decision to use Windows instead of the potentially more stable Unix.

The Navy defended Windows, but the Smart Ship program hit budget issues and delays, and it was wound down within a few years. Which isn’t to say that the concept went away — Rolls-Royce announced plans for a completely autonomous military ship last year, and military research agency DARPA christened an autonomous warship called the Sea Hunter in 2016.

The idea of building artificial islands isn’t a new one, nor necessarily a high-tech one. But it will never stop sounding awesome, so this Associated Press article about the Netherlands’ plans for expanding the country with new islands is still a distinctly fun read.

If it sounds familiar, it might be because people are still constantly reporting on new Dutch islands. Among other projects, The New York Times covered plans to build a tulip-shaped island in 2007, and a Dutch energy network proposed constructing an island for an offshore wind farm last year.

Some of these plans don’t pan out: the airport mentioned in the AP article hasn’t been relocated offshore, for instance. But CityLab has reported on islands that are actually being created as well — including artificial islands meant to trap silt and provide a sanctuary for birds, and an archipelago of islands that provide extra housing space in Amsterdam.

The late 1990s gave us the artsy TV title sequence, which — as chronicled in an excellent story by Lance Richardson last year — is now under threat.

But two decades ago, the Chicago Tribune complained about the loss of something else: the memorable TV theme song. The world of television, studio executives argued, was just too fast-moving to keep viewers hooked through an extended musical sequence: “we can’t give the competitor an opportunity to grab those eyeballs from us,” complained one. The piece is a reminder of how much we’ve come to take take slow television (and the fast-forward button) for granted in the age of streaming.

That said, the Tribune also acknowledges a couple of extremely major exceptions… including one of the most maddeningly memorable — and extremely ’90s — theme songs in television history.

The internet does not always favor common sense.

A public figure, for instance, might take a divisive political stance — like Ben & Jerry’s co-founder Ben Cohen signing an open letter supporting a new trial for convicted murderer Mumia Abu-Jamal. But after some time in the online rumor mill, that decision might look a lot more extreme — like Ben & Jerry’s naming one of its frozen treats after a man who was sentenced to death for killing a police officer.

In July of 1998, the Hartford Courant reported that American police departments had suddenly become furious about the flavor, which Ben & Jerry’s insisted didn’t exist. “This whole thing started up on the internet very recently,” lamented a spokesperson. “It’s incorrect, totally wrong.” Ben & Jerry’s has certainly dipped into politics in the years since, with things like an economic inequality-themed Bernie Sanders blend. But the Abu-Jamal ice cream has quite reasonably never materialized — and the internet, where web platforms are in a full-fledged panic over “fake news,” is still full of misinformation.

I’ll admit it: I have never watched Darren Aronofsky’s Pi, the surreal movie that Paste describes favorably as “an 85-minute migraine.” But the stripped-down, deeply weird film was released on July 10th, 1998, which means it’s time to take a look back.

The original critical consensus on Pi isn’t that far from how people think of the film today: The New York Times called it “awfully hard to watch,” but said it posed “age-old questions about the relationships between genius and insanity, mathematics and numerology, mysticism and scientific truth.”

On the day of the film’s release, IndieWire published an interview with a young Aronofsky — who would go on to have a long career making films like Requiem for a Dream, The Fountain, Black Swan, and most recently, the notoriously controversial Mother! “Do you think you can see yourself doing this for the rest of your life?” asked interviewer Anthony Kaufman. “Making movies?

We’ll see what happens,” said Aronofsky, cautiously.

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