I like the gimmick of reviewing one thing in the style of another in order to shed some light on the genre as a whole. Here’s two examples of that.
A review of the concept of pay-to-play games (or what you might consider ‘normal’ games, in which you just buy the game and then play it) in the style of articles criticising the concept of free-to-play games (which now dominate mobile, and make their money from various forms of in-game purchase). This raises some excellent points, but I would add that free-to-play is still relatively immature as a model, so has some legitimate problems that should get mitigated over time.
My personal least favourite aspect of free-to-play is that a lot of such games (regardless of genre) revolve around resource-management, where the resources are the player’s time, the player’s money, and typically two in-game currencies. People who aren’t good at this particular skill end up having a less fun time across all such games!
Similarly: what if we reviewed films like we reviewed games? This suggests even the way we culturally appreciate and understand ‘normal’ pay-to-play games is still immature compared to other media.
The historic development of scientific consensus on animal “consciousness”, and the lovely idea of thinking about wild animals as collections of individuals rather than uniform groups: Being a Sandpiper (3.7k words)
Film critic Hulk lays down exactly what was wrong with Tom Hoopers adaptation of Les Miserables, by giving a quick masterclass in cinematography. This is the best thing written in all-caps that I’ve ever read: HULK VS. TOM HOOPER AND ART OF CINEMATIC AFFECTATION (7.9k WORDS)
That last link is huge (but very well structured), so here’s a quick excerpt to explain the central point. Hulk quotes Gordon Willis, cinematographer on The Godfather (and many other great movies):
“You can decide this movie has got a dark palette. But you can’t spend two hours on a dark palette. . . So you’ve got this high-key, Kodachrome wedding going on. Now you go back inside and it’s dark again. You can’t, in my mind, put both feet into a bucket of cement and leave them there for the whole movie. It doesn’t work. You must have this relativity.”
Hulk then follows this with
WE’RE TALKING ABOUT TOM HOOPER AND THE FACT THAT HE WANTED TO MAKE AN “INTIMATE” AND “ORGANIC” LES MIS SO HE FILMED THE ENTIRE THING IN CLOSE-UP AND HAND-HELD.
DESPITE THE FACT THAT THAT WAS INAPPROPRIATE FOR ABOUT 90% OF THE MOVIE.
YUP. HE PUT BOTH FEET IN THE BUCKET OF CEMENT.
A few years ago I started to draft a series of blog posts with the titles “Ubiquitous surveillance is possible”, “Ubiquitous surveillance is inevitable”, and “Ubiquitous surveillance is abominable”, but never got around to finishing them, stalling when the ‘gather data and evidence’ phase spiralled out of control.
With Snowden’s leaks on the NSA, the first two now seem somewhat redundant, but I’m still surprised how few good articles I’ve found that specifically identify the problems of ubiquitous surveillance. Most preach to the choir and insist that the whole project is inherently bad, without digging into exactly why.
The insidious part of ubiquitous surveillance is that, at face value, it allows for perfect law enforcement, which should be a good thing. We have laws, and naturally we try to enforce them, so why would we not use technology to enforce them as efficiently as possible?
In 1984, George Orwell wanted to articulate the real issue so much that he used blatant exposition, in particular:
If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face — forever.
The key issue is that the state in 1984 has so much power (largely through ubiquitous surveillance) that society is in stasis: the power can never be overthrown, it will only grow stronger, and it will always crush any dissent.
Unfortunately 1984’s extrapolation is so extreme, I suspect people have the general impression that since the society from 1984 is terrible, we just need to avoid doing exactly that – without recognising that it’s conceivably the conclusion of a feedback loop we are already beginning. That feedback loop being: a state with such pervasive surveillance can use that very power to maintain and continue to extend it’s surveillance capabilities.
(Incidentally, this means the news stories I think we should really watch out for are those where a state uses surveillance to either extend the reach of its existing surveillance, or to defend its right to continue using that surveillance, both typically via blackmail, and unfortunately for the conspiracy-theory-nature of this concern, both very rarely made public)
(You might recall I collected responses to the ‘Nothing to Hide’ argument in Things 110)
A really wonderful minute of a mouse attempting to haul a cracker up a shelf (no sound needed):
I recently caught some of the London International Animation Festival.
This video, ‘The Solipsist‘ won the award for visual innovation; the effects are extraordinary, yet 99% practical. It’s 10 minutes with three main segments, so if you’re in a hurry you can just skip through it and get the gist (sound helps):
At the opposite end of many scales, ’The Banker‘ is short, low-budget, low/no-aesthetic, crude, rude, oddly paced, and still weirdly compelling (sound essential, 2′59″):
Suggested by Matt: 100 Poisoned Chalices
Through some implausible scenario that is not necessary for the puzzle, you are compelled to make a deadly choice: to choose and drink from a potentially poisoned chalice from room A, or room B. In room A, there are two chalices; one has been poisoned, the other not. In room B, there are 100 chalices, and 100 fiends have each independently and randomly poisoned one out of the 100- chalices; as a result, some will have been poisoned multiple times, some once, and some not at all.
Which room should you select your chalice from?
For those of you thinking “I know how to calculate that”, that’s great, but I encourage you to guess which room gives you the best odds first!
Kickstarter video paradox
I’ve backed 13 projects on Kickstarter to date (I’m currently hoping stretch goals can be met for Bee and Puppycat), and seriously considered many more.
The Kickstarter page is effectively selling you something. Very commonly, if someone watches a video about a product, they are more likely to buy it (if only because they self-selected to be that much more engaged with the process). But speaking personally, every time I watch a Kickstarter video, I end up feeling less likely to back the project. Why might that be? Is there a way to do it right?
People tend to assume children’s entertainment isn’t as good as it was when they were young, probably due to a three-pronged attack of rose-tinted nostalgia, the best shows being renewed (Sesame Street) or repeated (Bagpuss) so giving each new generation a sense of ownership over them, and poor curation for adults out of the current crop.
Recognising that this is a highly subjective enterprise, I’m going to pick out a few good examples of current kids fare in attempt to at least fix the latter. There’s even a kid-entertainment-based puzzle at the end.
TV Series with Puppets: Strange Hill High I occasionally take a look at current children’s TV to see what sort of animation techniques are being used, and Strange Hill High caught my attention through its fascinating combination of designer-vinyl-toy-style puppets combined with CG mouth animation.
The premise is entirely encoded in the name so I won’t bother to elaborate on that. Most importantly, it actually makes me laugh a few times per episode, which can’t be said of many other TV series. To be fair, 90% of it is fairly standard kids ‘comedy’, but it’s sufficiently fast paced that I don’t mind sitting through that to get to the other 10%.
If you seek reassurance from known quantities, it also features the voice of Richard Ayoade (The IT Crowd), and the head of the writing team is Josh Weinstein (The Simpsons).
Picture Books: Octonauts
Again, I first engaged with this franchise through the graphical design: I was impressed by the stylishness of their bath toys. It turns out there’s a whole CG animated series, which is quite good (mostly due to the use of regional accents), but it all started with a series of charmingly whimsical picture books. Here’s a few snippets to give you an idea:
Decoding the language of a sad fish:
Pictures that glow in the dark (from this book), which it turns out fascinate me just as much as when I was a kid:
Weekly comic: The Phoenix
Now I look back on it, more than anything The Beano looks like a primer on culture, mapping out the tropes and stereotypes of an idealised sort of pre-war age (vicars having tea, go-carts, hi-jinks, the threat of The Slipper), equipping the child with the reference points needed to navigate modern entertainment, while keeping said child entertained with a never-ending stream of speech bubbles that all end in exclamation marks (I only noticed this years later, and haven’t been able to read more than a few pages at once since).
It’s also got a bunch of other surprisingly good stuff. Bunny vs Monkey by Jamie Smart features high-quality hijinks like this and ever so often will just go incredibly dark, like this:
For being simultaneously educational and entertaining, I’ve never seen better than Corpse Talk by Adam Murphy, in which he interviews the reanimated corpses of the “dead famous”, and doesn’t really sugar-coat things that much:
There’s wonderful art by Lorenzo in Long Gone Don:
Finally, ‘Professor Panels’ by Neill Cameron teaches kids to make their own comics, sometimes delightfully deconstructing the form, such as the episode in which a mecha-comic-creating-monkey starts to misfire when a banana is added to its workings:
If you’re interested, do check out their website, which has a free digital issue, a link to the iPad app, a starter pack you could buy, and a bunch of other good stuff.
Video: Tune-Yards My Country
I like this music, and the video is pretty good too. Be sure to stick around for the funky syncopated brass solo around 2′40″.
Puzzle: The Perfect Power-up Purchase Path
The LEGO console games are aimed at children, but provide some solid co-op entertainment for adults too, especially if you derive pleasure from smashing things and collecting coins – or in the LEGO-themed parlance of the game, ’studs’.
In many (all?) of them, studs collected in the course of play can be used to purchase various upgrades. One such upgrade is the ‘x2′, which once bought, doubles the value of all the studs you subsequently collect – so a level where you might collect 100,000 studs will instead net you 200,000. There are other similar upgrades, like the ‘x4′, which multiplies by 4 – and they apply cumulatively, so if you have both x2 and x4, you get an 8 times multiplier, so that level would now net you 800,000 studs.
Naturally, the more powerful multipliers are more expensive to buy… but having a multiplier will help you save up for the others more quickly. Here’s a price list:
x2 = 1 million studs
x4 = 2m
x6 = 3m
x8 = 4m
x10 = 5m
So, the question naturally arises: if you want to eventually purchase all 5 of these multpliers, what order should you buy them in? (In case you were wondering, yes, they really do keep accumulating, so when you have them all you have a 2 x 4 x 6 x 8 x 10 = 3,840-times multiplier).
For the more mathematically inclined: what is the generic strategy for any multiplier series f and pricing series g? For the more game-design inclined: if you really wanted to encourage children to do some maths, how would you design the pricing for these multipliers? Alternatively, if you wanted to make the game as fun as possible, what multipliers and prices would you set?
Answer: Spoilers Sometimes Matter
Last time I asked if we could really believe research demonstrating that spoilers always improve enjoyment. The consensus seems pretty clear – even though ‘mystery’ and ‘twist ending’ stories were included in the research, it nonetheless seems very likely that there exist a few counter-example stories in which experiencing them unspoiled adds a tremendous amount to the experience. Since one can’t tell reliably tell which these are in advance, it seems wiser to err on the side of caution, and continue to avoid spoilers.
Puzzle – Do Spoilers Matter? Research looking into the enjoyment of short stories found that reading a ’spoiler’ beforehand tended to increase enjoyment. That seems quite possible, but the strangest part is that it holds even for mystery or ironic-twist stories. They even have a chart with error bars, which looks pretty compelling (click for big):
So, you’ll generally enjoy all stories you read (or presumably consume in any medium) more if you read about the ending first.
The question, then: how can you justify not doing this?
Audio – Beethoven wants you to play faster
When Beethoven eventually got his hands on a metronome, he marked up symphonies with tempos that nobody can quite believe he really meant, and which are pretty much entirely disregarded. This excellent Radiolab podcast investigates. (The forced conversational ’style’ gets a little irritating, but the demonstration at the end is fantastic).
Links – Race Against The Machine Our old friend the Invisible Hand guides us to make work more efficient with technology: robots replace humans on production lines, computer work becomes automated, cars and vacuum cleaners operate themselves, and productivity increases. Brilliant.
From the Luddites on, people have been fighting this change to defend their old jobs, but with hindsight we can say they were mistaken, as prosperity has increased, every time, and will continue to do so.
Or will it?!
Despite the apparent historic benefits, it’s still hard to imagine this trend continuing indefinitely and remaining benevolent.
Now, one can imagine some sort of desirable end point, in which (say) solar power becomes incredibly cheap:
… and robots / algorithms are able to do everything humans don’t want to do, and everything is wonderful and everyone is happy.
Of course, quite how you would run such a society isn’t entirely clear, and as Voltaire points out, work isn’t only about earning money:
Work spares us from three evils: boredom, vice, and need
But of more concern right now is how we organise society as we transition towards that end-point. In particular, it seems reasonable to suggest that automation of jobs will tend to increase inequality, as (in a simplistic model), the few that own the robots / server farms reap all the rewards of that automated labour while everyone else loses their jobs.
If the average American family still got the same share of income they earned in 1980, they would have an astounding $13,000 more in their pockets a year. It’s worth pausing to consider what our economy would be like today if middle-class consumers had that additional income to spend.
Here’s a fun sequence of slides putting the current economic situation (in the US) in 50 years of context (brought together by Business Insider):
Corporate profits as a % of GDP at all time high:
% of Americans with jobs is significantly down:
(Something interesting is happening here, because the more common measure of “unemployment rate” doesn’t look as bad)
Wages as a % of GDP at an all-time low:
(Side-note: these were extracted from a longer chart-based argument to do with wages and debt, which is quite interesting but somewhat disingenuously suggests that just “looking at the data” is some non-political process that can reveal answers, and doesn’t consider the fact that over the same time period the % of retired persons in the US increased from 8% to 13% and could reach 20% in the next 30 years. Still worth a look, though.)
Now, there are many other drivers of inequality (including the feedback loop of lobbying, which The Onion satirises perfectly), and while automation may not have been the biggest contributor so far, it’s worrying that we’re not in a good position just as automation is starting to look like a credible threat to prosperity.
There’s a book on this which characterises the problem in its title: “Race Against the Machine“. I haven’t read it, but apparently the authors make an interesting case and then fail to offer any realistic solutions. The absence of solutions and the seemingly inevitable progress along this line is why I consider this one of the major problems we need to solve (after climate change).
Finally, a really important sci-fi story on this topic: Manna by Marshall Brain, which demonstrates a method by which automation can creep into jobs without replacing them entirely, but the consequences are just as dire. Chapter 1 gives you the gist, but it’s worth continuing to see how he plays out the trend. (At the end he appears to suggest a solution, and unfortunately it appears to be much less realistic than the problem).
Mild NSFW warning: the last part of this edition embeds some pictures of female comic characters. There’s also a cat video, but I just assume everyone is fine with that.
Make-your-own hyperlapse video
Well, this is incredible: set a start and end point in Google street view, a target for the camera, and get as output a time-lapse video of that journey, in which you can still control the direction of the gaze – Google Street View Hyperlapse.
Rabbit Hole: No to No UI
Timo Arnall says No to No UI (more commonly referred to as “invisible design”), and puts forth a detailed and cogent argument, but the main reason I recommend reading it is the warren of rabbit-hole links he uses as implicit citations. For example, Kevin Slavin talks about algorithms, how they don’t share our goals and can have emergent properties we can’t understand like a flash crash due to algorithmic stock trading, and then he takes a hop from “60% of Netflix viewing comes from the recommendation algorithm” (not true if you check carefully), a skip to “Epagogix can algorithmically evaluate the box office potential of a scipt” (no) to jump to this wonderfully flippant quote:
What does a flash crash look like in hollywood? Maybe it’s already happened! How would we know?!
Third, as the second is too easy for Things readers, I invite you to guess: which sub-set of respondents is most responsible for the discrepancy?
As some of you will know, I work at a web analytics consultancy where we disentangle data conundrums not dissimilar to this, so I wrote up my findings in a blog post – I found the answer to the last question quite satisfying!
Animal Videos – flocking starlings, evil cat Kottke has the perfect pair of Starling flock videos – the standard high definition, clean and beautiful static camera one, and then a low resolution one that’s much more thrilling. You should watch both on as big a screen as you can.
Meanwhile, in the sub-genre of YouTube videos enlivened by a dramatic movie score, I declare this cat video the winner:
Games and stories
There is a tension between making a fun game and telling a good story; it seems to be very hard to do both at the same time. I think this might be because these represent two opposite learning methods; learning from someone else’s example, and learning by trying stuff out yourself in a safe environment.
But there’s a flip side of this conflict: sometimes, in the course of playing a game, you generate your own story, one you would never normally get to tell. Here’s an example.
I once played a match of 4-player local GoldenEye, back when I wouldn’t have needed to specify that 4-player GoldenEye was local. I ran out of ammo, and was chased down a twisty dead end by my friend who had some kind of machine gun, so I was pretty much doomed. I did have one thing though, and I said as much:
“I’ve got a proximity mine. If you come any closer I’ll kill us both!”
He laughed, and continued to pursue me round the final tight corner.
I set the proximity mine.
It killed us both.
I don’t remember the final score of that game – I don’t think I did well. But that tiny story remains one of my favourite gaming moments. For that reason, I was very interested to read Tom Armitage’s review of Game Dev Story, a cute little game that crudely simulates running a game development studio through the major console generations, because he made this assessment:
Game Dev Story exemplifies a kind of mechanical storytelling: stories told not through text or voice-acting, but through coherent systems that cannot help but generate stories.
I gave it a go, and he was absolutely right. Apart from the sense of ownership you get from making company decisions, the ability to name your company and the games you produce has some kind of magical effect that makes the whole thing strangely compelling.
It’s not a great story, but it meant a lot to me: after a difficult start, Squidopolis released a string of titles whose success built a war chest which specially trained hardware engineer Stephen Jobson put to use in developing the ultimate console: the Kraken, for which we then produced a string of hits, despite some major setbacks in production.
I like the term ‘folk games’ for equipmentless games a group of people can spontaneously play, such as Standoff, or Ninja, or Fantasy Fencing. I highly recommend all of those, the last one being particularly notable as it is an example of the ‘Tiny Games’ that Hide & Seek are putting into an app (so you don’t have to memorise these sort of things for every occasion). That’s happening on Kickstarter, and with a day to go at the time of writing it’s already funded, but I still recommend the £12 tier (which includes their Board Game Remix kit) to help reach the stretch goals!
Tim Link: Devil May Dance I like putting in place processes in which incremental progress is made towards a goal, and this year I reached the end of my biggest project so far: I finished my webcomic, Devil May Dance, which I had been updating weekly since April 2006.
The premise was to swap the macho protagonist of the video game Devil May Cry with the feminine lead of seminal rhythm action game Space Channel 5, and see how they got on in one another’s shoes, partly as a way to investigate gender expectations, and partly as an attempt to get some cheap laughs.
If that sounds interesting to you, or if you’re curious what would happen if I wrote a story involving time travel, you should check it out.
But more importantly, there’s another Kickstarter I’d like to draw your attention to. A friend of mine illustrates comics using primarily traditional techniques, and although she works incredibly hard, I get the impression this means she can’t turn out pages at the kind of speed a regular publisher would like (on account of having to wait for individual colours to dry!), so this is exactly the kind of thing Kickstarter is good for – delivering the kind of projects the invisible hand would usually hold back.
Unfortunately, according to kicktraq’s projection, at a little over half way through, the project has a 50/50 chance of success, so it’s going to need some extra help to make it. Check it out before April 24th!