Things October 2015: Social Status, External Staircase, Gangster Cats, Music Variants

Human Nature: Social Status, and Laughter

I know of two particularly powerful ideas for explaining a lot of human nature.

First, in this article, Kevin Simler writes up his findings after reading up on the literature regarding social status. The key insight is that we recognise social status through just two different strategies: Dominance, and Prestige. There are some interesting snippets about how we negotiate these differently; for example, you tend to avoid eye-contact with someone that has a higher Dominance-based status than you, but you actively seek eye contact if their status is through Prestige. There’s a lot of other interesting points so you should really just go read it, even if the author does slightly overstate the whole red-pill/rabbit hole bit.

Secondly, some years ago I read a theory about why we smile and laugh from neuroscientist Vilayanur Ramachandran that had an impressive amount of explanatory power. The central idea is that we smile or laugh to signal that something that seems like a “threat” is actually fine. Over millennia, that response has applied to ever more general types of “threat”, such as someone saying something that doesn’t make sense until you re-interpret what they must mean (like a joke). I’m not sure where I originally read it, but it’s covered quite well by William Herkewitz here.


Conical Helix Church Spire External Staircase!

I went to Copenhagen recently, and one of my favourite things was climbing the spire of the Church of our Saviour (Vor Frelsers Kirke), because the staircase climbs the outside part of the spire:

I particularly enjoyed the way it continues to spiral in at the very top until it’s too narrow for a human to squeeze up, creating a brilliant combination of claustrophobia and acrophobia:


AudioBooks to watch out for

Last time I pointed out how you can borrow audiobooks from your local library remotely using Overdrive. Having tried it out, I particularly recommend HP Lovecraft’s Nyarlathotep for a highly condensed 10 minutes of Lovecraftian madness, juxtaposed mind-bogglingly with the creepily up-beat and optimistic pre- and post audio that bigs up the company behind the recording.

don’t recommend listening to Hunter S. Thomson’s The Rum Diary. I naively thought it would be a reasonable introduction to his work, but it turns out to be a book he wrote in his early 20’s and couldn’t get published; it finally saw print in the 90’s when he needed the money and had made his name with better work.


Gangster cat videos

Having watched a bunch of cat videos with “gangster” soundtracks in the hope that there would be more as good as the first two I had seen, I can confirm that there aren’t, so these are all you need to bother with:

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Extreme theme park rides

Back in 2013 I attended some of the London International Animation Festival, and included a couple of the highlights in Things 130. In a strand that included both documentary and animation shorts, my favourite was “The Centrifuge Brain Project”, which I couldn’t find online when I published Things 130 but has now in fact appeared! Check it out:

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Musical Covers and related concepts

Last time I gave some examples of what I considered to be notable covers. Simon pointed out that the perception of a cover is strongly tied to which version you heard first, making the definition potentially subjective. In my case I only distantly remembered Kylie’s Hand On Your Heart when I heard Jose Gonzalez’s version, which gave it an eerie familiarity, but when I then went back to listen to Kylie’s it sounded like a ridiculous imitation of Gonzalez. This problem multiplies when a cover gains significantly more attention than the original, and seems ridiculous in the context of the strategy in the 40’s and 50’s of releasing as many covers as possible to maximise the return for a composition: as Kottke draws together, Baby, It’s Cold Outside saw 9 releases in 1949, with some covers beating the “original” to the market.

Laurence commented:

“How are we defining ‘cover’ here? For example, while the lyrics are entirely unrelated, Frank Sinatra’s ‘My Way’ uses the same melody as the French song ‘Comme d’habitude’.”

… which made me wonder about the terminology used for other musical combinations. Here’s a review of what I see in the area (if you like music, get ready to open and pause a lot of YouTube tabs, or just open this playlist to get all the YouTube links in sequence):

  • Cover: A new performance of an existing song by a different artist. The lyrics and melody will remain virtually identical, but the individual phrasing of lines and overall structure may differ. See the previous post for examples. This would also be used if the lyrics have been translated, such as in the Waters of March, in which the month is accurately translated but the season referred to naturally switches with the hemispheres; this is also the song used in the lovely animation Omlette that I linked to in Things 128.
  • Mashup: Overlaying or mixing at least two other existing recordings, typically combining the vocal track from one with the instrumental track from the other. Substantial re-ordering of structure and speed alterations may be applied to facilitate the mix. Most awesomely demonstrated in “Smells Like Booty“, more recently with “Shake it Off (The Perfect Drug)“.
  • Remix: A recording that takes the original ‘stems’ of an existing recording, and possibly some new material, and combines them in various ways to create a new track. My personal favourite being Jon Hopkins’ beautiful and sedate “The Low Places” being remixed by Geese as some sort of free-form jazz by a band that can’t quite remember how the original track went (worth making it through the opening cacaphony).
  • Sampling: The use of a typically small sample of an existing recording within a new one. The new song may be composed entirely out of samples from other recordings.
Clearly many variations on these rules are possible, but not that many are common. So let’s see what other combinations could exist.

As per Laurence’s example: Same melody, different lyrics. If the lyrics are just marginally different (such as Coulton’s cover of ‘Baby Got Back’), it counts as a cover. If they’re totally different… we don’t seem to have a term. It’s a little rare (presumably for copyright reasons) but not totally unheard of. Perhaps we could call it a Relyric.

One step removed from this would be to use the actual original instrumental recording (or re-perform the instrumental part in just the same way as it was originally recorded) and put new lyrics over it. A ‘reprise‘ in a musical is something like this, but otherwise I think it’s pretty rare, for copyright reasons. Similarly you could take a purely instrumental work and add lyrics to it, as per the Final Fantasy 4 song I cited in Things back in 2008.

You could take an existing vocal part and record new music behind it. This doesn’t seem very common but I think tends to be called a Remix when it does occur (even though it’s the mirror image of the relyric, which I don’t think could be termed a Remix). For example, Bjork’s original All Is Full Of Love (with that memorably NSFW Android video) vs. Plaid’s lovely remix.

You could take an existing track and perform it with some (perhaps substantial) alterations to lyrics, melody, phrasing and instrumentation, but somehow retain something sufficiently distinctive from the original that clearly forms the basis of the song. You haven’t used any of the original music so it isn’t really a remix, but what is it? I suspect if the original artist is involved and consents to the recording it would still count as a remix (compare Bjork’s original Cosmogony with the El Guincho remix; this is also what’s going on in the Geese remix of The Low Places I mentioned above). I rather liked Max Richter’s take on Vivaldi’s Four Seasons which was along these lines (and was termed “Recomposed” which seems a fitting term); it explicitly plays against the melodies that would be cued in your mind from a familiarity with the original work:

Finally an outlier category: a song with a completely different melody, structure and lyrics, which nonetheless clearly recreates what you might term the “defining funk” of an earlier work. This seems near-impossible to define reasonably and probably shouldn’t be included in this continuum, I only mention it because it came up in the case of Robin Thicke’s Blurred Lines (excellently summarised and contextualised here), a song in which he inexplicably chooses to sing about his personal lurid musings on women and his cavalier approach to consent. A jury found that despite differing from Marvin Gaye’s Got To Give It Up in any musical sense, the defining funk had been “copied”. The actual musical similarities were excellently examined by Joe Bennett.

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Things September 2015: The Sea, Song Covers, Weather Reporting, Alphabear

Comic – The Deep Ones

A few thematically related thoughts have been freaking me out quietly but insistently for many years: the idea that, when in the sea, you are in the same body of water as sharks and giant squid; the imagined sensation of floating somewhere in the sea and sensing something vast swimming just beneath your feet; the idea that the sea has not been thoroughly explored and that monsters may truly lurk in deep trenches. This short comic, “The Deep Ones” by Julia Gfrörer explores these ideas quite poetically and insightfully.



Music – Covers that that Trump Originals

Logistics note: reading through old editions of Things, about 50% of all YouTube videos I link to disappear after a couple of years. So I’m now including a link to a generic YouTube search that should work even if the one I chose has gone away.

While fully recognising that everything is subjective, especially music,  I hold that these covers are particularly notable.

Jose Gonzalez does “Hand On Your Heart”, sounds like he means it:
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In case you need reminding, here’s Kylie with the original:
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Similarly, Iron & Wine sings ‘Love Vigilantes’, a lovely and quite moving ballad about returning to family from war:
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That was New Order’s idea originally, but I’m just not as convinced by their version:
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Just in case it looks like I’m only into gentle acoustic covers, here’s something going the other way!

In Scott Pilgrim vs The World (a movie I will tell anyone that will listen is underrated right after I’ve tried to convince them to appreciate Speed Racer), Scott (Michael Cera) tries to impress Ramona (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) with a 30 second song he wrote about her:
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She tells him she can’t wait to hear it when it’s finished. That’s the joke.

The things is, this song is actually by Beck, which explains why it’s a surprisingly assured and satisfying chord progression – Beck contributed most of the original songs for the film. I like to imagine Beck saw this bit and thought “You know what, I will finish it” and came out with this:
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Weather-related newspaper headlines

(via Iain) I had wondered if there was a corollary to Betteridge’s law of headlines relating to the weather. I hadn’t noticed that the Daily Express was particularly fond of weather-related headlines, but quite brilliantly Scott Bryan compared a year of headlines against what actually transpired back in 2012. The post is no longer up but you can find it on the internet archive.


Libraries caught up with the future when I wasn’t looking

Back when people were getting excited about the advent of ebooks and digital audio books, I remember a lot of intense discussion about what this might mean for libraries.

Turns out that all the pieces came together, and you can now digitally borrow these things from your local library directly from your device, for free. (Perhaps more accurately, you’ve already paid for it with your taxes). I’ve been using the Overdrive app to do it and it’s really quite brilliant.

Two caveats. First, you very reasonably do have to join your local library in the first place to get an ID and PIN. Second, don’t be tempted to create an Overdrive account using Facebook, because if you later want to borrow an eBook and put it on a device that doesn’t run Overdrive, you’ll need to go through some icky business with ‘Adobe Digital Editions’ (because DRM), and that doesn’t work if you used Facebook.

On the topic of DRM, I’m still convinced it’s a terrible idea for digital purchases, but I think it’s pretty much essential to make this whole borrowing idea work, so I’m happy to accept it there.


Mobile games to try

Free-to-play mobile games are trying all sorts of strategies these days to find a business model that works (because straight paid on mobile sadly doesn’t). One model is to create a game that never really ends, is completely enjoyable without spending anything, and in which spending gains you a small advantage of some sort. These games don’t make a huge amount of money for the people that make them, and the flip side of that is that they can give you a lot of fun for very little money.

Alphabear is one such game. It’s a really lovely word-puzzle game with some nice strategy. There’s an ‘energy’ mechanic (you can only play a certain amount and need to wait for your ‘energy’ to come back), but you can buy ‘infinite honey’ which removes the energy thing entirely. So if you enjoy the game, you should definitely do that.

Breakneck is another, and takes the form of a twitchy high-speed sci-fi sort of endless runner, reminiscent of Wipeout. If your device is up to it, it’s a very polished experience at a ridiculously low price. (iOS only – sorry)

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Things August 2015: Movies, books and stand-up comedy

Momo (1973 novel)

Six years before The Neverending Story, Michael Ende wrote Momo, well known in his native Germany but undeservedly less well known here. It takes a fairly common message (to do with how you should spend your time / what is important in life), but rather than using a fantasy setting to metaphorically imply the message, he uses a fantasy setting as a way to state the message as directly and clearly as possible. Some books change how you look at life if you take the time to really think about them; Momo leaves you no choice. I thought it was brilliant.

Also, here’s a a quote from it that I like:

He looked down at the tortoise. ‘Cassiopeia, my dear, I’d like your opinion on something. What’s the best thing to do when you’re under siege?’


‘HAVE BREAKFAST,’ came the reply.


‘Quite so,’ said the professor


Street Fighter (1994 film)

The Street Fighter movie is fascinating. Here’s a few key facts that let you know right away something weird is happening:

  • Written and directed by Steven de Souza (the writer on Die Hard, The Running Man, among others)
  • Budget $35m ($57m in 2015 adjusted for inflation)
  • IMDb rating 3.7
  • Rotten Tomatoes rating 12%
  • Worldwide gross $99m ($161m in 2015 adjusted for inflation)

If nothing else, I highly recommend reading the Polygon article Street Fighter: The Movie – What Went Wrong, which pieces together the extraordinary story of how that movie came about. It sounds as if de Souza had a truly nightmarish experience as director, blocked from making the movie he wanted to at just about every turn (seriously – it’s incredible the movie got finished at all).

Having read the article I just had to see the movie for myself. As it turns out, it’s a rather brilliant B-movie that knows exactly how silly it is, and is tremendously enjoyable as a result! This often seems to be the case when the IMDb rating dips below 4.0 (it’s the 4.0-6.5 region you should avoid). My personal highlight: Guile (Van Damme), leading an assault on the bad guy’s base, in his state-of-the-art stealth speedboat, takes a moment to watch some home movie footage of himself and his good buddy (now captured) on a VHS casette he evidently brought with him, on the CRT monitor built into the stealth-speed-boat control panel, perhaps to remind himself what he’s fighting for. Amazing.

Even more brilliantly, there’s a director’s commentary evidently recorded by de Souza a few weeks after the movie came out (intended for the Laserdisc edition), in which he betrays no bitterness about the process of getting the film made, but rather conveys a genuine warmth for the material and pride in what they managed to achieve. The Street Fighter movie is a great example of someone being given life-lemons and making life-lemonade out of them.

Mitch Hedberg

I originally referenced Mitch Hedberg back in Things 104 in 2011. I finally bought one of his CD’s, Strategic Grill Locations, which is as funny as the many YouTube clips you can find of him would suggest, but instead lasts for almost an hour, which is pretty great.

He has some nice one-liners, such as:

I haven’t slept for ten days, because that would be too long.

But what I didn’t adequately convey in Things 104 is his delivery style. His laid-back demeanor and accent are part of it, but his unusual prosody is what really makes his material work. So I can give you this quote, which is okay, but it’s infinitely better when he’s saying it:

I was at the airport a while back and some guy said “Hey man, I saw you on TV last night.” But he did not say whether or not he thought I was good, he was just confirming that he saw me on television. So I turned my head away for about a minute, and looked back at him and said “Dude! I saw you at the airport… About a minute ago… And you were good.”

Stewart Lee

In some ways the mirror opposite of Mitch Hedberg and his non-sequitur one-liners, Stewart Lee makes long-form stand-up comedy. I didn’t really understand what he was trying to do until I read his book, which I guess makes him hard to recommend.

That said, when I saw him live, I found one particular segment – in which he responds to a silly statement from UKIP with a 12-minute long Reductio ad absurdum argument – to be a brilliant result of the weird territory he has been exploring. So I was glad to find that someone has taken that segment from his TV series and put it online.


Zathura (2005 film)

Let’s have another breakdown:

  • Written by David Koepp (Jurassic Park, Mission Impossible, Indiana Jones… 4) and directed by Jon Favreau (Iron Man, Cowboys and Aliens)
  • Budget $65m
  • IMDb rating 6.1
  • Rotten Tomatoes rating 75%
  • Worldwide gross $64m

… ouch. So what went wrong there?

One problem was the release timing: they went out against Disney’s Chicken Little (which people went to in droves, assuming Disney’s first foray into 3D would be as good as Pixar – Chicken Little made more money than Disney’s Lilo & Stitch, conclusively disproving money as a measure of movie merit), and in the second week when people realised Chicken Little wasn’t that good, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire came out.

The other problem was the perception that Zathura was just “Jumanji in space, without Robin Williams”… which is actually a very accurate description.

But while it is that, it’s also brilliant, partly because space is cooler than jungle, and partly because Robin Williams isn’t the best thing about Jumanji anyway. Jon Favreau makes use of practical effects wherever possible (for example in the trailer below, that robot smashing through the doorway is literally doing that; even the jet-flames on the ships are practical), and this is particularly effective for the ever-increasing destruction of the house. Also featuring before-they-were-famous starring roles for Josh Hutcherson and Kristen Stewart, it’s just a really lovely film that is unjustly overshadowed by its precursor.

Okay, one caveat: there’s some stuff that’s almost cool sci-fi but then is instead just fantasy, which some of you might find a bit disappointing. As is so often the case, keep in mind it’s a fantasy film rather than a sci-fi one, and it’s all good.

- Transmission ends

Things July 2015: Royalty Redistribution, Live Train Data, Future Cameras and Robot Art

Fairer Royalties, Better Music

I’m very interested in how the internet is changing the music industry. Some things are better (from some viewpoints): it’s cheaper to make music and distribute it; it’s easier to find and listen to a wider range of music. Some things might be worse, but it’s hard to tell: has the average amount of revenue made per song, or per minute of music, gone down? What about for the most popular 10 artists? What about for the median artist by income? Are there fewer full-time musicians, or more?

I’ve not seen good data on that, but this piece in The Economist is suggestive at least: the average age of festival headliners has gone up by 10 years over the past 20 years. But it’s not clear if that’s just because demand (for festivals) has gone up, and supply (of festival-pleasing artists) has risen more slowly, driven by older artists whose audiences now find festivals cater to their needs.

Over on PopJustice (which has my favourite cookie warning message), they suggest the move by Apple to streaming is the final nail in the coffin for not just paid downloads, but a thriving new music industry in general. If this seems hyperbolic, bear in mind that music buying doubtless follows a Pareto curve, and the small cohort that account for most of the music-buying have the strongest (short-term) incentive to switch to streaming.

With all this going on, it’s interesting to take a look at royalty distribution on streaming services. Superficially it seems simple and perfectly fair: they collect subscription fees and ad revenue, and then distribute them to artists based on how often their tracks have been played. This is how it works on Spotify.

But as this thoughtful article points out, that’s not necessarily the fairest. It would be fairer to directly distribute the revenue from a particular customer to the artists that customer listened to. That doesn’t sound like much of a change, but it really is, so I do recommend reading the article to see why. The author also argues that such a situation would be better for everyone, even the labels, and as such should be adopted. I’m less convinced by that. It’s true ‘on average’, but I suspect the current system benefits the bigger labels more, and they have a lot more of the power.

On the plus side, with Apple and Google (and others) getting into the game, perhaps this might emerge as a competitive strategy from one of them…


Dan Deacon: WIWDD

On the subject of new music, well, Dan Deacon is one of my favourite musicians, and it seems Adult Swim had a bunch of animators contribute segments to go with the track “When I Was Done Dying” from his most recent album, and all of those animators seem to have put in about twice as much effort as I was expecting, with this mind-boggling result:


Noticing Racism

For an eye-opening insight into what one might term ‘soft’ racism, I highly recommend reading this sermon followed by these excerpts on prosopagnosia. Primed by the first article, the last couple of paragraphs of the second hit pretty hard.


Real Time Trains

(via @PlanetTimmy)

I found it absurd that I could be on a train with internet access and yet be unable to find out when that train was expected to arrive at the various stops along the way. Evidently I wasn’t looking hard enough, because it turns out this brilliant website has that covered:

There’s also a wonderful site with much more precise data than most people would know what to do with regarding the exact positions and statuses of trains at various key junctions. Each day a random map is free, and it’s £10 for a full year subscription. I haven’t done that yet but it’s very tempting. Check it out!

Of course, once you have this data, you want to make more efficient use of it. For instance, it’s possible with many clicks around RealTimeTrains to figure out if you can make a more efficient connection by boarding a delayed train that was originally supposed to depart before you arrived. So the next thing I need is a service that will tell me not just the best route, but the best route based on where trains are right now.


3D Maps of London Underground Stations

If, like me, you ever wanted to see maps of all the underground stations (specifically the 120 that are actually underground), Ian Mansfield has cleaned them all up and presented them nicely here.


Here Comes The Future

Finally a couple of things that gave me a bit of ‘future shock’.

This (proof-of-concept) camera is powered by the light that its sensor receives. Which, given the similarity between a digital camera’s sensor and a solar panel, actually makes sense. So cameras don’t need batteries. Wow.

Secondly, neural networks can make art. Okay, there is a human operating the controls and deliberately manipulating things to make cool-looking stuff, but maybe later a neural network can figure out what ‘cool-looking’ means better than us, and start producing all kinds of cool stuff. Okay, that bit’s probably a lot further away, but this does make me lose a bit of confidence in the belief that artist’s jobs are robot-proof. Nobody’s job is safe from the robots. The robots are coming. We have been warned.

- Transmission abruptly ends

Things I found on the internet. Cannot guarantee 100% potato-free.