Back in 2009 Mike Linksvayer reblogged Hal Finney’s blog post about his own death.
Sad news from Hal Finney, diagnosed with ALS. I’ve only met him briefly, but have been following his writing, mostly on mailing lists, for nearly two decades. Very few if any people exist whose thoughts I trust and respect as much as his. Titled Dying Outside, Finney’s post about his diagnosis, is a fine example of his writing, for the future.
Hal Finney became famous for his impact on Bitcoin, but at the time he was known to me as much as to Mike for his exceptionally sharp and insightful writing on mailing lists. In Mike’s post he linked “for the future” to a message that Finney had sent to a mailing list for people interested in extropianism, the practice of mailing your frozen body to the future in the hopes that future people will open the envelope and revive your mind.
One thing we should keep in mind when writing here or in any online forum is that we are writing not only for the present, but for the future. Our words may well be read many times, even far into the future. They are recorded in public and private archives and will be available indefinitely. Given the likely increase in future levels of intelligence and attention, it may even turn out that more eyes see our writings in the far future than in the near present.
Hal Finney in 2004
I came across that message a few days ago, in the present moment of 2024, after Mike referenced his 2009 blog post referencing Finney’s 2004 email. Realizing what I was reading – a long-ago prediction coming true precisely in the moment I was reading it – gave me a shiver of ecstacy. It’s such a powerful insight that I forgive the utopian silliness about future intelligence and attention (note to people in the future reading this: you are not so smart!).
Blogging is a strangely isolating experience. It is a monologue with no listeners. A message in a bottle. But if it’s a message to the future, the odd social dynamics at least make sense.
I got into a conversation on Mastodon with @email@example.com, an account that posts absurdly good AI art, and I asked the innocent newbie question: how do you even do that? Improbably, the person took the trouble to really explain. The rest of this post is to record their answer for future use by me and maybe you.
This is the image (caption: “sisterhood”) that started the conversation:
I asked “As I scroll through your work, “I wonder about your setup. How do you approach the work to get such high quality results? Any advice to relative newbs like myself?”
The person replied as follows.
Do NOT bookmark – gone in 30 days!
Hoo boy! That’s a $64M question, with no simple answer. In a nutshell, it’s about learning how to assemble a good prompt, which will generate a good image, using a good upscaler, which not only makes your tiny image usable, but also adds lots more detail to it, and then using software tools to finish the image.
No way I can make this short, so I’ll do a post with multiple replies, and number them so you know what order to read them in.
There are plenty of tutorials out there on what format to use for a good prompt, and though you can use the same prompt for the different AI’s, to get really good results you need to learn the nuances of each system.
Visit PromptHero to see what prompts other people are using, It’s a dying site, and you need to create an account, but it’s free (no hidden fees) and worth your time as a learning tool.
Visit the midlibrary website to learn about artistic styles. They’re really important. Though verified for use on Midjourney, these styles are also usable in some other AI’s, like Stable Diffusion.
There are no free good upscalers. The various AI’s have their own upscalers, and do a decent job, but to get really good upscaling, while adding incredible amounts of additional detail, you’ll need to pay for it.
My goto is Topaz Gigapixel. It’s no longer available, but they do have an all-in-one tool that combines the now defunct Gigapixel with two other discontinued software packages, which I also use. It’s Photo AI. You can get it for $150.
The new kid on the block is Magnific.ai. It’s pretty incredible, but it’s a ridiculously overpriced subscription service. If you got the money, go for it. Otherwise, get PhotoAI for a more cost-effective solution.
The AI’s put out decent results. The upscalerrs make the output even better. Finishing software takes those results to the final level.
Any decent photo/image editor will enhance your image. There are free ones (the Gimp), non-free ones (Photoshop), and online services (don’t use them, so can’t name any).
I use Lightroom, Photoshop, Topaz Denoise, Topaz Sharpen, and Luminar Neo… on every Image I keep!
I load the images into Lightroom. It’s my hub for all I do, allowing me to manage my image assets and to make use of all my finishing software.
I tell Lightroom to use Photoshop to edit an image, using individual layers for each of the following steps.
I tell Photoshop to upscale the image 6x using Topaz Gigapixel — my 1344×896 Midjourney image becomes 8064×5376. Not only is the image upscaled, but the upscaler adds an incredible amount of extra detail.
I tell Photoshop to run Topaz Denoise to take care of any grainy issues.
I tell Photoshop to run Topaz Sharpen to add more detail.
I tell Photoshop to run Luminar Neo to do my final color/contrast/artistic touches.
All of the above is done using a Photoshop action script — it takes care of the drudgery stuff, and lets me focus on the creative stuff.
I save the photoshop file back into Lightroom.
There’s quite a selection to pick from.
Dall-E3 is best for being true to your prompt, but while good for illustration, it’s not that great for photorealism. That’s intentional, as are the other restrictions like using product names, the names of live authors, nudity, etc. etc. I like the illustrative results, but I don’t use it.
Stable Diffusion is for the hard-core crowd. Though the default model has restrictions similar to Dall-E3, it is open sourced and the community has created models that allow you to do anything you want. The caveat: You need to run it on your own machine, with a semi-powerful GPU, and a somewhat steep learning curve. Try the Night Cafe web site to play with Stable Diffusion. You can earn some free credits there that allow you to use it for free… sparingly.
For a newbie, I recommend Midjourney. It’s a subscription service… the cheap plan is under $9 a month, and you don’t need to worry about running out of GPU time — help train their AI by using the Rate Images option on their main web page and you’ll get a free hour of GPU time for every 30 minutes you spend with the AI. Unlike your subscription hours, the earned hours roll over until used up.
Midjourney will give you quality results with minimal work. It’s designed to output beautiful images, no matter what. Yes, it does have restrictions (nudity, gore, etc), but it’s nowhere as restrictive as Dall-E3.
Find images you like on the Midjourney website Explore page, copy their prompts, and try them out on the Midjourney discord page (and soon on their website). Play with the parameters like –s and –style to see how they affect results.
Learn how changes to your prompt affect the image, not only in the order of words, but in what’s said and not said, and how to weigh particular words to give them more importance.
Learn how to have private DM’s with the Midjourney bot, that way what you do is private and not viewable in public. But, do visit the public rooms to see what other people are doing and gain some inspiration for ideas you might want to try.
[Image: The Heathen Gate at Carnuntum, outside Vienna; photo by Geoff Manaugh.]
Last summer, a geophysicist at the University of Vienna named Immo Trinks proposed the creation of an EU-funded “International Subsurface Exploration Agency.” Modeled after NASA or the ESA, this new institute would spend its time, in his words, “looking downward instead of up.”
The group’s main goal would be archaeological: to map, and thus help preserve, sites of human settlement before they are lost to development, natural decay, climate change, and war.
Archaeologist Stefano Campana, at the University of Siena, has launched a comparable project called Sotto Siena, or “Under Siena”—abbreviated as SOS—intended to survey all accessible land in the city of Siena.
[Image: A few of Siena’s innumerable arches; photo by Geoff Manaugh.]
That project’s goal is primarily to catalog the region’s millennia of human habitation and cultural artifacts, but, like Immo Trinks and his proposed ISEA, is also serving to document modern-day infrastructure, such as pipes, utilities, sewers, and more. (When I met Campana in Siena last year, I was interested to learn that a man who had walked over to say hello, who was introduced to me as an enthusiastic supporter of Campana’s work, was actually Siena’s chief of police—it’s not just archaeologists who want to know what’s going on beneath the streets.)
I had the pleasure of tagging along with both Trinks and Campana last year as part of my Graham Foundation grant, “Invisible Cities,” and a brief write-up of that experience is now online over at WIRED.
The article begins in Siena, where I joined Campana and two technicians from the Livorno-based firm GeoStudi Astier for a multi-hour scan of parks, piazzas, and streets, using a ground-penetrating radar rig attached to a 4WD utility vehicle.
[Images: The GPR rig we rode in that day, owned and operated by GeoStudi Astier; photos by Geoff Manaugh.]
We stayed out well past midnight, at one point scanning a piazza in front of the world’s oldest bank, an experience that brought back positive memories from my days reporting A Burglar’s Guide to the City (alas, we didn’t discover a secret route into or out of the vault, but just some fountain drains).
In Vienna, meanwhile, Trinks drove me out to see an abandoned Roman frontier-city and military base called Carnuntum, near the banks of the Danube, where he walked me through apparently empty fields and meadows while narrating all the buildings and streets we were allegedly passing through—an invisible architecture mapped to extraordinary detail by a combination of ground-penetrating radar and magnetometry.
“We want to map it all—that’s the message,” Trinks explained to me. “You’re not just mapping a Roman villa. You’re not mapping an individual building. You are mapping an entire city. You are mapping an entire landscape—and beyond.”
An estimated 99% of Carnuntum remains unexcavated, which means that our knowledge of its urban layout is almost entirely mediated by electromagnetic technology. This, of course, presents all sorts of questions—about data, machine error, interpretation, and more—that were explained to me on a third leg of that trip, when I traveled to Croatia to meet Lawrence B. Conyers.
[Image: A gorge leading away behind the archaeological site I visited on the island of Brač, Croatia; photo by Geoff Manaugh.]
Conyers is an American ground-penetrating radar expert who, when we met, was spending a couple of weeks out on the island of Brač, near the city of Split. He had traveled there to scan a hilltop site, looking for the radar signatures of architectural remains, in support of a project sponsored by the University of Colorado at Boulder.
Conyers supplies a voice of caution in the WIRED piece, advising against over-relying on expensive machines for large-scale data collection if the people hoarding that data don’t necessarily know how to filter or interpret it.
[Image: Lawrence Conyers supervises two grad students using his ground-penetrating radar gear; photo by Geoff Manaugh.]
The goal of an International Subsurface Exploration Agency could rise or fall, in other words, not just on questions of funding or public support, but on the limits of software analysis and human interpretation: are we sure that what we see on the screens of our machines is actually there, underground?
When we spoke in Siena, Campana used the metaphor of a medical biopsy, insisting that archaeologists and geophysicists will always need to excavate, not just for the recovery of historical artifacts and materials, but for verifying their own hypotheses, literally testing the ground for things they think they’ve seen there.
Archaeologist Eileen Ernenwein, co-editor of the journal Archaeological Prospection, also emphasized this to me when I interviewed her for WIRED, adding a personal anecdote that has stuck with me. During her graduate thesis research, Ernenwein explained, she found magnetic evidence of severely eroded house walls at an indigenous site in New Mexico, but, after excavating to study them, realized that the structure was only visible in the electromagnetic data. It was no less physically real for only being visible magnetically—yet excavation alone would have almost certainly have missed the site altogether. She called it “the invisible house.”
In any case, many things have drawn me to this material, but the long-term electromagnetic traces of our built environment get very little discussion in architectural circles, and I would love this sort of legacy to be more prominently considered. What’s more, our cultural obsession with ruins will likely soon begin to absorb new sorts of images—such as radar blurs and magnetic signatures of invisible buildings—signaling an art historical shift in our representation of the architectural past.
For now, check out the WIRED article, if you get a chance.
The “Loki” character Sylvie Laufeydottir hides out in doomed places. It’s the fact that they are going to be obliterated that makes them safe. No trace of her existence will be recoverable. No observer wants to be there. She’s in Pompeii just before the lava engulfs it. She’s on an alien world with a moon on the verge of collision.
In these places and times the moment will soon be over and the permanent records will have met oblivion along with the rest.
This came to mind as a metaphor for my Myspace profile. My indiscretions on Myspace have long since been disposed of. There isn’t even a trace in the Wayback Machine. It has 860 billion web pages saved over time – quite few more than McDonald’s pathetic 85 billion – but not one of them is mine.
The WordPress editor necessary for posts on some.gonze.com gets in my way. I prefer the editing experience in Standard Notes:
I’m in Standard Notes all the time anyway, and have been for years
listed.to uses markdown, which I know well
The WordPress editor uses this “block” concept that I hate. Markdown is far better.
The downside of listed.to is that I can’t upload anything to it. It’s nothing but text. That’s not fatal – a text-centric approach is a good thing, and I can easily upload truly necessary images or audio to my shell account at Dreamhost.
I suspect that listed.to will not be maintained indefinitely. It’s a sideline feature for Standard Notes. That’s why I used a custom domain – so I can control the outcome when they are gone.
Of course, the converse is that listed.to may well outlive me and my Dreamhost account. But that’s a different threat. It used to be that we bought our own domains and hosted our own servers for longevity in the face of provider shutdowns. In practice, though, providers often outlive us. A domain starts around $20/year. A social network account starts at $0. A custom domain takes maintenance. A social network account can last nearly forever – even my ancient Myspace account still exists, albeit as a pale shadow of my blinged-out profile circa 2007.
You are commuting to work by bus. While sitting on the bus, you open your favorite social app. Even though it is your favorite app, you don’t trust it enough to share your location with it. At the next stop, a passenger gets on the bus. The passenger sits on the bus and opens the same social app. But the passenger shares their precise location with the app. Now, if this social app is reading accelerometer data on your phone as well as the passenger’s phone, the app can easily figure out that both phones experience the same vibration pattern. Indeed, both phones are going to record the same vibrations, e.g. when the bus takes off, stops, and swerves left or right. The app now knows that you and the passenger are together in the same environment, hence same location. Don’t be surprised if you receive a recommendation from the app to add this passenger as a friend.
A coordinated attack could take this even further. Each bus could be equipped with a phone running an app that (1) is recording the accelerometer data and (2) is recording the bus line and location. This data could be combined with an accelerometer signature recorded in a widely used app like Instagram.
In the case of a popular cause like the Boston Marathon bombing, it’s easy to imagine public support.
Baldur Bjarnason argues that old-school blogs were always extractive and exploitive:
The blogging economy was filled with bad practices all around. People today don’t appreciate just how rampant these practices were. Most of us didn’t notice because we were in our tiny corner, all reading the same few popular bloggers (an early version of the modern ‘influencer’). But outside of that corner, blogs were done for Google and paid for by Google. After a few years of buying into the hype, advertisers started to push back.
This way of thinking about it all is new to me. I can’t dismiss it offhand.
I have always thought of the fall of blogs as being caused by user experience. Centralized social networks have both distribution and better tooling. If I want my writing to be read, I use Twitter. This blog is more like an open journal.