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Things June 2015: Trolley problems, Crystal Maze, Car Review

Lesser known Trolley problems

Trolley problems are thought experiments in ethics in which one typically evaluates who one might sacrifice to save someone else, as well as whether inaction involves less culpability than action. They quite neatly distil certain ethical problems, but are also so extreme and implausible that it feels slightly uncomfortable to draw general conclusions from them.

I recall an interesting debate on the radio in which someone was proposing measures to protect endangered wild tigers (at some cost to some group of humans; I don’t remember exactly what), and she was given the following challenge: if you had a gun, and one of these endangered tigers was about to attack and kill a man, would you shoot the animal? “I don’t think that’s a very useful question,” she responded, “for example, what if that man had killed your daughter. Would you still choose to shoot the tiger then?” to which they responded: “Well that’s just silly.”

Anyway, here’s a nice collection of examples along those lines: Lesser known Trolley problems variations. For example:

There’s an out of control trolley speeding towards four workers. Three of them are cannibalistic serial killers. One of them is a brilliant cancer researcher. You have the ability to pull a lever and change the trolley’s path so it hits just one person. She is a brilliant cannibalistic serial killing cancer researcher who only kills lesser cancer researchers. 14% of these researchers are Nazi-sympathizers, and 25% don’t use turning signals when they drive. Speaking of which, in this world, Hitler is still alive, but he’s dying of cancer.

 

Stop YouTube Autoplay

Most internet companies make money from advertising, and therefore (only slightly indirectly) from your attention. As a result, once they have your attention, they are desperate to keep it. That’s why you’ll see other articles heavily pushed at you when you finish reading one (or even when you’ve just started reading one, as that’s when most people will bail), why Spotify will do anything with its UI to trick you into listening to a never-ending stream of music rather than just what you chose, and why, most recently, YouTube has started automatically forwarding you from the end of your chosen video to the start of one that it has algorithmically guessed you might like (or are perhaps least likely to stop).

YouTube’s algorithm is pretty good, so this is a little bit like being provided with a bottomless bowl of nachos that’s difficult to stop eating from. In order to take the bowl away, you have to switch off the little switch at the top of the recommended videos list on the right, like so.

 

Review of a petrol car

I enjoy reviews in which Status quo bias is revealed by reviewing something with that bias reversed (I mentioned a couple in Things 130). In particular, we tend to take the disadvantages of existing technology for granted, so when a new technology has different disadvantages it can seem much worse. Here, Tesla Club Sweden review a petrol car.

One could hear the engine’s sound and the car’s whole body vibrated as if something was broken, but the seller assured us that everything was as it should. The car actually has an electric motor and a microscopically small battery, but they are only used to start the petrol engine – the electric motor does not drive the wheels. The petrol engine then uses a tank full of gasoline, a fossil liquid, to propel the car by exploding small drops of it. It is apparently the small explosions that you hear and feel when the engine is running.

Origin of the Crystal Maze

A lovely look back at how the Crystal Maze came about, and the logistics of filming the show.

We were going back and forth to Paris and one day they drove us to an industrial part of Paris and opened a warehouse door and there was a crystal dome. We said, “What are you doing with that?” They said, “We don’t don’t know, we just built it, but we don’t know what to do with it.” We said, “We’ll have that!”

GIF of the month

Helps if you’ve seen Pacific Rim, but not essential.

- Transmission ends

Things March 2015: Cap D, Bad Advice, The Books, Tube Trivia

I like to share individually great things in Things. But some people just churn out consistently great things, no one of which stands out as a notably better thing… and as a result, they don’t tend to feature in Things. So, this Things is all about those things.

Captain Disillusion

I originally linked to a Captain D video way back in Things 17, but his recent launch on Patreon reminded me that really just about all of his stuff is great, so you should see it.

The Books

If you like the idea of music formed out of obscure samples layered up with surreal folk and an electronic sensibility, The Books are about twice as awesome as you could have hoped. Now no longer together, they leave us with four albums and sense of fathomless loss. Some highlights:

The Animated Description of Mr Maps – notable for the striking synchronisation of percussion and speech at 2’30″:

 

Take Time – a great example of how they weave samples from a mix of sources to create a strangely resonant overall effect:

 

Bad Advisor

The Bad Advisor is a Tumblr founded on the observation that in some publications, people write in to advice columns clearly looking for endorsement of terrible decisions they have already made. I used to think sarcasm the lowest form of wit, but the Bad Advisor elevates it to new heights by posting responses explicitly giving the bad advice that was sought.

Some sample moments might help. Concluding remarks on “Help, Our Daughter Believes She Has A Right To Define The Terms Of Her Own Lived Experience“:

It’s strange and disappointing that your daughter has decided to become “cold and uncommunicative” toward her parents, when all you did was inform her that she’s a lying liar whose entire life is a sham and that you prefer the company of the man she says has abused her for the entirety of her adult life so far to entertaining the possibility that your mean old daughter isn’t just trolling everyone she knows for fun, but who knows why an apple would fall from a rotten, crumbling tree and then try to get the everloving fuck away from said rotten, crumbling tree, gravity is a huge mystery and no one knows how it works.

On the subject of “The Only Thing I Love More Than Accepting People For Who They Are Is Telling Them What To Wear When They’re In My Presence“:

The whole entire population of planet earth anxiously awaits your ruling on how they should act and dress in your presence, lest a pair of slacks singularly usher in the end of everything you have ever known or held dear. After all, what if someone thinks your sister-in-law is a man, and then they saw you hanging out with your sister-in-law, thinking she was a man that you were hanging out with?????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????

Just go check out the whole archive, and be sure to read the tags at the bottom of each post which sometimes serve as a kind of Tumblr-version of the mouse-over-text-style extra punchline.

 

Londonist Londonist: Secrets of the London Tube

A lovely series of videos documenting interesting things about each of London’s tube lines. There’s some nice easter eggs and twists revealed when you make it to the Waterloo & City:

 

 

Transmission ends

Things 134: Overanalysis of popular media for Fun and Recreation

At school, I thought the purpose of English Literature was to argue about hidden meanings in books, meanings I believed were not remotely connected to the author’s original intent, and that I therefore considered worthless.

Since then, I’ve completely changed my mind. Intent is bunk, over-reading things is fun! Are the Star Wars prequels actually the purest embodiment of George Lucas’s original desire to recreate the adventure serials of his youth? Or is Lucas in fact the world’s greatest troll, deliberately irritating the original trilogy’s fans, perhaps because he resents the way they feel a kind of ownership of the material he originally created? I don’t know, but it’s a lot of fun to think and argue about both, preferably simultaneously!

“Any man who inflicts the human race with ideas must be prepared to see them misunderstood.” – H. L. Mencken

So, this edition of Things is dedicated to finding joy in metatextual resonances and overanalysis of popular media that I have particularly enjoyed.

 

Candy Crush / Addiction

Art Hawk is a video series that’s all about over-reading meaning in games, all delivered in a silly voice and with layered, weird and occasionally relevant imagery. Needless to say, I love it. Here, Art Hawk explains why Candy Crush is a wonderful piece of ARRRRTTTT:

 

Seinfeld / The Ballardian Infinite

Claire Evans writes about how the Seinfeld episode about a seemingly endless car park is part of a rich tradition going back to J. G. Ballard and J. L. Borges, and finds meaning in the fact that the traditional apartment set was physically replaced by the garage set. Were these layers of meaning intended? Probably not! And that’s fine.

 

Movies in general / The lives of the stars

I’m interested in movies and how they are made, but not in the personal lives of actors and actresses – what would usually be termed ‘gossip’. But I was fascinated by The Rules of The Game, an excellent long-form article on the relationship between celebrity, gossip and publicity in the movie industry over the past 100 years. In particular, I was interested by this core insight (emphasis mine):

… media outlets report that George Clooney, whose picture personality is that of a handsome, charismatic, yet hesitant to commit man-about-town, replicates those characteristics in his “real” life, gallivanting about Lake Como, switching beautiful girlfriends every few years. The extra-textual information ratifies and authenticates his overarching image; the “real” Clooney is in fact all of the things he is in, say, Ocean’s Eleven. Whether we’re conscious of it or not, that coherency is at once pleasurable and reassuring.

Yes! That’s exactly it. I suspect this is why the media frenzy about Clooney’s recent narrative-breaking engagement was so large that even I heard about it.

 

The LEGO Movie as message-bearing trojan horse

Film Critic Hulk wrote a lengthy, heartfelt piece on why The LEGO Movie really works. Hulk suggests that one of the key plot-points within the movie represents what the makers of the movie are actually attempting to achieve with the movie itself [Spoilers approaching]:

LORD AND MILLER ACTUALLY OUTLINE THEIR ENTIRE MODUS OPERANDI RIGHT THERE IN THE MOVIE ITSELF […] DISGUISE YOUR THING SO IT SEEMS LIKE A THING THEY’LL ACCEPT […] THEN WORK WITHIN THE CONFINES OF THOSE ACCEPTED WAYS IN ORDER TO DO WHAT YOU ACTUALLY WANT TO DO. IT’S A LITERAL HEIST, BUT IT’S A METAPHOR FOR A CREATIVE ONE TOO.

Specifically, they disguise the movie as a light and fluffy fun-for-all-the-family frolic, while delivering (a bit heavy-handedly in my opinion) a message about adult responsibility and what life is really all about.

 

Jennifer Lawrence’s rise to stardom and The Hunger Games

I first saw Jennifer Lawrence in Winter’s Bone, an independent movie she carried almost single-handedly. She plays a teenage girl with an absent father and an emotionally diminished mother, who supports her family in a harsh backwoods environment by, among other things, hunting squirrels.

A couple of years later, she was cast as the lead in The Hunger Games, in which she plays a teenage girl with an absent father and an emotionally diminished mother, who supports her family in a harsh backwoods environment by, among other things, hunting squirrels. She puts herself forward to be thrust into the limelight of something called ‘The Hunger Games’, where she is a tremendous success thanks to her grit and skills. And of course, by being cast in The Hunger Games movie, Jennifer Lawrence herself was thrust into the real-world limelight, and is currently enjoying tremendous success thanks to her skills and, possibly, grit. I’ve got to admit, I do find that coherency strangely reassuring.

(Her intervening appearance in X-Men: First Class only breaks this narrative a little bit).

 

Baron Munchausen’s defeat(?) by bureaucrats

The Adventures of Baron Munchausen is one of the more extraordinary entries in Terry Gilliam’s canon, a wonderfully creative and madcap romp through various ridiculous scenarios which betrays none of the difficulties that beset its production. [Spoilers about to break down the gate.]

In the movie, bureaucrats, following entirely rational procedures, prolong the suffering of the people in a city under siege. The Baron defies them, and through sheer force of will, creativity, and with a few friends, defeats the attacking army. But the chief bureaucrat then has the last laugh, assassinating the Baron.

Similarly, despite bureaucrats at Colombia attempting to fatally restrict the movie’s budget, and in the face of all manner of other challenges, Terry Gilliam nevertheless created something wonderful – through sheer force of will, creativity, and with a few friends. But the bureaucrats got the last laugh, as a political change within Colombia resulted in the movie being given such a limited release it could not possibly succeed, effectively assassinating it.

In the film, with one final, surreally creative twist, the Baron nonetheless declares victory. In the documentary accompanying the movie on DVD, Gilliam feels that this resonates with real life still further: despite everything, the movie is everything he wanted it to be, and it lives on with home releases; this represents his final victory.

(On the subject of Terry Gilliam, the parallel between Doctor Parnassus peddling incredible things to an unengaged modern audience and Gilliam’s late career is almost too overt to mention here).

 

The Wachoswki’s Speed Racer as a triumph of Art over Commerce

Speed Racer is my favourite movie. It’s utterly ridiculous and visually stunning, which I find an irresistible combination. This quote from the Ain’t It Cool review explains that a little better:

You know how sometimes you see a trailer for a film like THE FIFTH ELEMENT, and they show you all this eye candy and it looks like the whole film is full of that? And then you see the film and it’s actually about 10% crazy eye candy and the rest looks like a regular movie? Well, that ain’t SPEED RACER. Every single image in this film is outrageous, hyperreal, and color-saturated, and at first, it’s sort of a shock to the system. But by about 15 minutes in, your eyes get used to it, and suddenly the entire palate becomes sort of beautiful.

But it’s more than that – in Adam Saltsman’s Vanquish retrospective he draws a parallel between that underrated video game and Speed Racer, and sums up this other brilliant property of the film:

In SPEED RACER, time is completely relative; a viscous fluid, the passage of which, like our place in the chronology and memories of the characters, is utterly dependent on the story, rather than linearity, or even cinematic tradition. Time and space shift according to the needs of the narrative and cinematography, but in a way that is intimidatingly holistic and with a degree of confidence that would be unnerving if it wasn’t so thoroughly saturated with real human love.

Anyway, to get back to the point, and what really cements the movie’s place at the top of my all-time-favourite list, is Chris Stangl’s observation that it is essentially a metaphor for its own creation:

Because Speed Racer is about something; about something moving and important […] Speed Racer is about art and commerce, though the stand-ins are racing-constantly-compared-to-art and patronage in the form of corporate driver sponsorship, with Speed Racer as a virtuoso whose work in content and form reduces crowds to tears of ecstacy. It’s about accepting that your art exists in a commercial sphere, that money and power are in the balance, from sponsor on down to spectator… but the artist needs to do what the artist does, and ignore all that. Listen to what the car needs. When you turn in something bizarre and startling, garish and strange — even when it gets upsetting and your mom has to look away — as long as you drove as hard as you could, you did your goddamn job […] The Wachowskis are encouraging artists who can’t help but make the weird new things they make, to be bold, proud. When it’s in your blood, you have no choice anyhow.

The fact that the film proved to be a financial disaster makes this message all the more poignant for me.

- Tim Mannveille tweets as @metatim and writes more about films on his personal blog

 

Things 133: Overreacting, audio history of sampling, internet vs time, meta-meta-analysis

Comics – Overreacting

Jemma Salume has an excellent series of comics about overreacting to things (and also learning to cook, and dating). They’re compact and hyperbolic, which is how I like my comics, and also how I like my toy universe model geometries, hahaha.

Music – Raiding the 20th Century
This remains my favourite mix, and with the ten-year anniversary upon us I was surprised to realise I had never put it in Things.

In 2004, DJ Food (aka Strictly Kev) made a 40-minute mix for XFM chronicling the history of ‘cut-up’ (essentially sample-based) music which he called ‘Raiding the 20th Century’. Shortly afterwards he read Paul Morley’s book ‘Words and Music’ which did much the same thing and covered much of the same material. Paul Morley also coined the phrase ‘Raiding the 20th Century’ twenty years earlier. Taking note of this big flashing fate-arrow, they got together, recorded Paul reading key parts of the book, and created a new hour-long mix of the material.

The mp3 is available over on archive.org, the track listing is here, and you can go ahead and listen to it right here:

It’s about 20 minutes before the ‘history’ really starts, and while Morley’s commentary then explains and introduces many of the tracks and samples, many more are used without comment. Over the years, as I learn more about music history, more and more of them are making sense, which is very satisfying. As one of the samples used states: “every time you listen to this recording, something will happen.”

Links – Time and the Internet
As we build up an ever larger historical archive of material online, the date something was originally published becomes more important, and something we’ll need to become more aware of (assuming we avoid internet decay).

I like the approach of the BBC, which appears to maintain the CMS that articles originally appeared in (for example, this report from September 11th 2001, or the Mammal-of-the-month November 2002). That’s still not quite enough to avoid the confusion that may arise from incautious Googling for events that recur. Also, try to work out when this was written.

Anyway, if you would prefer a cogent discussion of the topic rather than a selection of semi-random BBC links, then I highly recommend Joanne McNeil’s piece on the subject here, in which she says things much more precisely than I have been, like this:

“Digital content appears with minimal visual language distinguishing yesterday from tomorrow and today. Now habits have emerged in which we communicate with the past and even mistake it for the present.”

(Also, see this Cat and Girl comic).

Video – Brett Domino
Looking through previous editions of Things, I was surprised to find I’d never featured Brett Domino, who does a range of silly-but-clever, bad-but-good things with music. I think the most impressive is his medley of the top 10 pop songs at the time he hit 10,000 Twitter followers, which culminates in a surprisingly effective montage finale:

Link – Scientific truth, researcher bias, and parapsychology
In a meta-analysis, the results of many similar experiments are analysed together in order to gain statistical power and shed more light on subtle phenomena. For example, if it’s a very small effect, some experiments won’t yield any results, perhaps causing us to question the experiments that do find an effect; by considering all these experiments together, we can better assess if we’re seeing Type I or Type II errors. Also, if you suspect the result may only come about due to sloppy methodology, you can see if there is a correlation between how ‘rigorous’ a study is and the size of any effect that it finds – if more rigorous studies come up with smaller effects, that’s quite suggestive.

Years ago I read about a meta-analysis of research into psychic abilities, and the results were not clear-cut one way or the other, despite taking a comprehensive overview of the relevant studies. I thought that was very interesting, because it suggested that either psychic abilities were real, or the scientific method wasn’t as infalliable as I had thought (or both).

Many more studies have been performed since, and this problem does not seem to go away. A strong clue seems to be the experimenter’s bias effect: a researcher who believes that an experiment will yield a certain outcome is more likely to end up getting that outcome, even if they are not intentionally manipulating the experiment to that end.

Of course, experimenter’s bias is quite a tricky and small effect to prove, so what you need to do is a meta-analysis across the various studies into it. But when different people conduct this meta-analysis, they reach different conclusions: some find the experimenter’s bias effect exists, and some find it doesn’t!

If you’ve been following closely to this point, you can guess the logical next step: we need a meta-meta-analysis of the experimenter’s bias meta-analyses, to see if meta-experimenters that believe the experimenter’s bias effect exists were more likely to find exactly that result in their meta-analysis! Brilliantly, and also alarmingly, this meta-meta-analysis was conducted and concluded that, yes, that’s exactly what happens: there is indeed a meta-experimenter’s bias effect. So the question now is… does the experimenter’s bias effect actually exist?

I found all this out from a brilliant essay by Scott Alexander, which includes all the juicy references and finishes with an amusingly modified Star Wars quote, so is pretty much perfect.

Puzzle – Sequel Naming
For some media, major new updates are numbered: movies (Iron Man 3), TV series (Game of Thrones Season 4), video games (Call of Duty 4) are obvious, but it’s also dominant in operating systems (Windows 8), Consoles/phones (Playstation 4, Samsung Galaxy S4) and even classical music (Bach’s Cantata No. 140),

Other things don’t seem to work that way, notably books (A Clash of Kings, rather than A Game of Thrones 2) and albums (Björk – Post, rather than Debut 2), but also theatrical productions (admittedly much rarer, but it’s Love Never Dies, rather than Phantom of the Opera 2)

(Of course, sometimes people mix their strategies with hilarious results: Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare 2, BT Infinity 2, Xbox “One”)

The contrast is most stark in TV series versus books. So the question is this: why do we have Game of Thrones Season 2 on TV, but A Clash of Kings in book form?

Tim Mannveille tweets as @metatim, and previously worried about old things disappearing from the internet 

 

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