All posts by metatim

Things April 2017: Multiplayer Mobile games, Weight loss and Physics, Paranoia and Tolerance

This issue of Things was initially drafted in January 2016 and for various reasons is just coming out now. Let’s see how out of date it is…

Mobile Game of the Moment: Dreii

Mobile gaming is very exciting, because touch-interface location-aware always-online devices open up an amazing new landscape of interactive possibilities. Mobile gaming is also very depressing because these possibilities are rarely harnessed in an interesting way, and even when they are it rarely leads to commercial success.

This is exactly why I’m recommending you get Dreii right now (available on Android, iOS and also on Steam).

It’s an elegant physics-based puzzler in which you try to stack objects under various challenging constraints. The really brilliant bit is that you get to co-operate with anyone else that happens to be playing the same level (on any device) at the same time as you. There’s also a rather lovely map visualisation in which you can see what levels others are playing to better seek them out – or go back and help another player make it through to the one you’re stuck on!

The helpfulness of others is massively varying, which is part of the charm. I recommend it right now as the recent launch ensures a goodly surge of currently active players.

Update: well, that was written about a year ago, so I can’t really recommend it as much because few are now playing it. You can do local co-op with someone else playing at the same time though, so it’s still worth a go if you can arrange for that!

Or go and play the other brilliant game I got into in the intervening time: Snakebird (iOS, Android, Steam), an incredibly simple yet extremely difficult puzzle game.

Or go and play Crash of Cars (iOS, Android), which is real-time arcade-style car combat and is being played by a few million people at the time of writing.

Humans are More Complicated than Physics, part 94: Weight vs Diet

If you want to lose weight, don’t eat. This is not medicine, it’s thermodynamics. If you take in more than you use, you store it.
– Michael Bloomberg

It seems most people agree with Bloomberg’s appealing logic. It turns out, as it often does, that humans are more complicated than simple physics would suggest.

Vox has a great look at the energy-in energy-out model here. The most striking conclusion of their wide-ranging review of research is that exercise is great for health, but not for weight loss. For weight loss, diet is a much more important component. So Bloomberg is sounding roughly right, but the mystery then deepens when we consider a study that found people on the same diet and exercise regimes put on more weight now than they did in the 80’s.  Note that although the Atlantic’s headline is “Why It Was Easier to Be Skinny in the 1980s”, the article doesn’t answer the question, because we don’t actually know. We just have some theories.

Finally, on Aeon, David Berreby dives a lot deeper into this mystery. Most striking for me was the finding that over the last two decades, animals as well as humans have gained weight – including lab mice, which have gained an average of 11% per decade despite having rigorously consistent diets. If you want to read about some fascinating theories on why this might be happening (light? BPA? A virus?), go check it out.

Since that was all a bit depressing, here’s some fun data on how the UK’s diet has changed over time.

Paranoia in Politics

Quite a few months ago (er, a year ago now) Charlie Stross wrote about the Paranoid Style in politics. He cites two fascinating essays charting the relationship between paranoia / conspiracy-theories and US Republicans (one from 50 years ago and one more recent). Things like “9/11 was an inside job”, vaccine-related conspiracies, or any time you hear the phrase “Liberal elite”. Stross then adds his own interpretation of how the internet has reinforced this and given rise to (take a deep breath) an “ad-hoc movement of angry ideologues who have jabbed their fungal hyphae into the cerebral cortex of Reddit and n-chan to parasitically control the rageface collective.”

Well, a year has gone by and this has all become rather more clear. I think the only useful thing to add is that Popularism (in the sense of a political movement that believes most of the existing power structures are self-serving, corrupt, and out-of-touch) is clearly a close relative of the Paranoid Style.

Google Image Reverse Search growing in Intelligence?

If you want to search based on an image (to find where it came from, or a higher resolution version) you can use TinEye and get limited but exact results. Or you can use Google’s “Search by image” functionality to get a wide range of approximate results. I do this quite a lot while trying to track down the artists behind work I post on my daily drawing Tumblr.

I recently tried to use it to trace the origin of this piece:

I was unable to find the artist, but I was extremely impressed that Google suggested a page of ‘similar images’ which were indeed a lot of paintings of cats with a similar colour palette and often distorted proportions:

You can of course use these properties of the search algorithm to generate art.

Tolerating the Tolerable

I can Tolerate anything except the Outgroup” is an essay by Scott Alexander on filter bubbles and tolerance. It’s so interesting to me that I’ll summarise it all below, but I recommend reading it in full.

  • Alexander defines Tolerance as “respect and kindness toward members of an Outgroup”, and defines an Outgroup as a group that has “proximity plus small differences”: a group of people who live in the same neighbourhood but who are ‘slightly’ different to you. I’m capitalising these terms because the definitions aren’t sufficiently general – for example, you could be racist but still Tolerant under this definition.
  • He broadens typical US political alignments into ‘tribes’: Conservatives are Red tribe, Liberals are Blue tribe (the US political colour binary reverses the UK’s). As a side note he also identifies a libertarian-leaning Grey Tribe, which I’ve found to be a useful concept – the Grey tribe is typified by:

“…libertarian political beliefs, Dawkins-style atheism, vague annoyance that the question of gay rights even comes up, eating paleo, drinking Soylent, calling in rides on Uber, reading lots of blogs, calling American football “sportsball”, getting conspicuously upset about the War on Drugs and the NSA, and listening to filk”

  • Alexander then asserts that the liberal Blue tribe’s outgroup is in fact the Red tribe. He gives the interesting example of being roundly criticised by Blues for expressing any kind of relief at Osama bin Laden’s death, only to later see those same people openly celebrating the death of Margaret Thatcher.
  • Finally, he suggests that political articles that reference ‘Americans’ or ‘White people’, written by Blue tribe people (who are notionally included in those groups), are tacitly actually about Red tribe members, and when a Blue says “I can tolerate anything except intolerance”, they are identifying intolerance with the Red tribe and are actually saying “I can tolerate anything except the Red tribe / my Outgroup” which no longer sounds that impressive.

In an excellent coda, Alexander then realises that he’s doing the same thing: criticising a group he notionally is a member of (the Blue tribe), but actually criticising his Outgroup, as he realises he’s probably Grey.

While I think this is an interesting argument, I do think it’s important to note that being intolerant of a group of people who hold opposing political views (which can’t be identified on sight, and can change) seems far less egregious than being intolerant of people who simply look a certain way. Views are, after all, one step away from Actions, but that’s a distinction I’ll get to in the next edition of Things.

- Transmission finally ends

Things December 2015: Star Wars Special

As you may recall from Things 43, I’m a bit of a Star Wars fan.

So in terms of Things I found interesting in December, there was really only one. If you hate Star Wars I’ve got one other Thing for you below, a bit more music, and then it’s wall-to-wall Space Opera. I’ll save spoilery stuff until the very end and give fair warning.

Meine Schmusedecke / Patchwork Pals

At the Edinburgh Film Festival in 2010 (which I wrote about in this Things special), one of my favourite short animations was Lebensader by Angela Steffen. Last year at the DOK Leipzig film festival I was pleased to recognise her hand in a series of very short children’s animations about the adventures of some animals on a patchwork quilt.

There is an English dub, but I most enjoy the original German – I don’t know the language, but that’s what I like about it: the context and certain similar-sounding words make it a lot of fun to guess what’s going on. It’s about 3 minutes, and you should at least stick with it until the fox shows up:

Things Updates: Music and Dialogue

In Things November 2015 I quoted Dennett’s recommended method of dialogue, which involved carefully identifying areas of agreement, disagreement, and accurately re-stating your opponents position before attempting to debate it. Tarim wonders if this is inspired by “Buberian Dialogue” (pdf link):

The emergence technique proposed herein is sometimes called “Buberian dialogue.” The technique calls for two discussants, a moderator and an audience. The discussants each say their initial piece. It is the role of the audience to listen for what the two discussants have said or implied which might be in common. The audience is called upon to inform the discussants of these commonalities (which the moderator captures on a white board) and then for the discussion to turn to the revealed items. This occurs through three or more rounds. The aim is for a transformational experience. There is no effort to reach consensus or conclusion. Rather, the goal is for a transformation to take place in how the discussants view each other in the context of the debate. If a more human based respect emerges, the technique is successful.

Just imagine a political debate taking place through this form!

Tarim also adds his nominations for notable musical reworks (which began in Things with covers, reworking in general, and other examples from Things readers), while noting that unfortunately most of his favourite covers are those he heard live:

(also)

Frank Zappa’s takes on Bolero and Stairway to Heaven:

And finally Far-Cue, a “3 piece punk band who do notable versions of: Mike Batt’s Remember You’re a Womble, Motorhead’s Ace of Spaces and Bach’s Toccata and Fugue.” Youtube videos exist, but “they just don’t capture the essence of Far-Cue” – which I can well imagine!

So what is this ‘Star Wars’ thing anyway

I grew up with Star Wars, and it’s now so much part of the cultural furniture that it’s quite hard to see what it really is.

Strip away what you already know, and think about how odd it is to launch a franchise with ‘Episode IV’. So odd that Fox didn’t allow it, and it was just ‘Star Wars’ until George was allowed to change it for the 1981 re-release (and of course he’s continued to change the films whenever he has the chance). This is just the most telling sign of what Lucas was trying to do: recreate the adventure-serial movies he enjoyed in his youth, in which you would usually be encountering a random episode and hearing talk about back-story you knew nothing about – “You fought in the Clone Wars?!” The other biggest clue is that he had first tried to get the rights to make a Flash Gordon movie, and being unable to get them, decided to just make his own thrilling space adventure instead. (As if annoyed how many people don’t realise this, Lucas mentions it repeatedly in all of the commentaries on the most recent DVD/Blu-ray release!)

The best modern analogue for what Lucas was doing is probably Robert Rodriguez’ Planet Terror, in which Rodriguez tries to make an exploitation B-movie as good as he always wished they were.

This is all very reasonable; the really weird part is how ridiculously successful it was. Here’s the US box office of the top 10 grossing movies in the 5 years running to 1977:

In 1975 Jaws was an outlier, a freakish break-out hit… and then Star Wars almost doubled Jaws’ US domestic takings. Worldwide, across all re-releases and adjusted for inflation, ‘Star Wars’ (aka Episode IV or A New Hope) is second only to Gone With the Wind, which came out in 1939, when 45% of the US population went to the cinema weekly, as opposed to 1977 when that figure was down to 10% (pdf source). Incredible.

I personally think three main factors helped Star Wars achieve this excessive success.

Generational Nostalgia

It seems for various reasons that people have their greatest ability to create influential cultural works between the ages of 30-40. That age group also commands a large amount of the money going to entertainment: those without children are at a peak ratio of earnings to needs, those with children will spend to entertain the whole family. This means entertainment that resonates with the 30-40 year-old generation can prove disproportionately popular, and nostalgia for their youth is a good approach. (When you enter this age group yourself, the first sign is that shops start playing the pop music of your youth).

Back to the Future  went back from 1985 to 1955; Hairspray, The Wonder Years, Grease, Happy Days, and perhaps most nakedly That ‘70s Show all did a similar nostalgic leap. So in 1977 an audience existed that, like George Lucas, was nostalgic for the adventure serials.

This is also why we see favourite movies of the 80’s coming back 25-35 years later with sequels or remakes: Alien, Terminator, Robocop, Total Recall, Ghostbusters, Rocky, and Indiana Jones to name a few of the biggest.

Hairspray actually benefitted from the effect twice (set in 1962, made in 1988, remade in 2002). Star Wars has arguably benefitted three times: the initial adventure-serial throwback, and then the prequel trilogy and (just about) sequel trilogy each resonating with the generation that grew up with the previous Star Wars movies.

The Hero’s Journey

Aka the Monomyth, this is a story structure George Lucas studied and then consciously followed with Star Wars, and is one of the most popular story types that exist. Whatever else is going on, with this at the core you have a very strong narrative hook.

Execution

Episode IV’s script is weak: “This bucket of bolts is never going to get us past that blockade”, “Boy, it’s a good thing you have these compartments!” The pacing is also weird – at age 7 a friend and I were playing with our Star Wars toys when we realised we could watch the movie on VHS; after about 20 minutes we got bored and went back to the toys.

But apart from that (!), much of the execution is really incredible for the time. For one thing, Lucas founded a special effects company and a sound company that were each so successful they remain leaders in their fields even today. Relatedly, I suspect Ben Burtt’s sound design in particular elevated the film dramatically above other genre fare of the day (lightsabers, Vader’s breathing, blaster bolts, alien languages, background hum on ships… hundreds of convincing, world-building sounds in a single film).

How do you follow the most successful film in a generation?

Lucas found directing Star Wars incredibly stressful. With so much success, the world’s expectations would make directing a sequel even worse. I also suspect he knew a sequel would be held to a higher standard, and this adventure-serial schtick was going to wear thin. The one thing he had going for him was that the arc of the Hero’s Journey had plenty of life left. So he brought in a different director, got some pretty good script-writers, and took a back seat.

After seeing Star Wars films frequently throughout my life, it was only after a 5-year hiatus that I could re-watch them somewhat afresh as an adult, and realised that The Empire Strikes Back really is a step up in quality. Return of the Jedi then concluded the Hero’s Journey beautifully and assured Star Wars a long-lasting place in the minds of a generation.

In light of all the above, the seemingly weird prequels make a lot more sense. With financial security behind him, Lucas was able to get back to doing what he really wanted: adventure serial movies, complete with cheesy lines, melodrama and slightly wooden acting. I think the prequel trilogy is just the kind of movie Lucas wanted to make all along, and he actually got better at achieving that rather than worse.

I suspect the greatest problem for the prequels was that they’re not doing the ever-popular Hero’s Journey, but rather some sort of rise-and-fall tragedy, which the nuance-free adventure serial form is terrible at supporting.

The Force Awakens (no spoilers yet)

Which brings us to The Force Awakens. Back in 2005, after queuing for 16 hours, I got a ticket for the first 6-film Star Wars marathon and world premiere of Episode III: Revenge of the Sith at Leicester Square (showing the Original Trilogy and then the Prequel Trilogy, in order to save the newest addition until last).

At the end, George Lucas came over from the more star-studded premiere that had taken place in the nearby Odeon, and addressed the crowd. He was quickly drowned out by a chant that spontaneously arose from the fans: “We want nine! We want nine!”

Lucas calmed the crowd, and answered the request with these words I can still hear now:

“Star Wars is the story of Anakin Skywalker. It begins when he’s 9… it ends when he’s dead… there is no more story.”

(The BBC reporter recorded slightly different wording).

[Update – I rediscovered the recording I made of that intro! Perhaps unsurprisingly, the BBC reporter’s wording was closer than my memory – T.M. 16th April 2017]

As we now know, Disney thought there was at least $4bn more story, and they’re set on proving it, with new Star Wars episodes and spin-off films planned for every year from 2015 – 2020.

With all that history and no more Hero’s Journey story arc, how could Disney possibly satisfy the expectations of three generations of fans?

Well, that looks quite plausible. I particularly enjoyed the way a seemingly new and haunting piano progression evolves into a familiar theme – Han and Leia’s love theme in fact, which is a particularly apt choice following the end of Return of the Jedi.

At the time of writing, The Force Awakens has set the record for (unadjusted) US Domestic box office, and more impressively is at number 15 in the worldwide inflation-adjusted box office, putting it ahead of The Phantom Menace, Return of the Jedi, and just about on track to overtake The Empire Strikes Back, which would make it the most successful Star Wars film since 1977.

So that seems to be working.

I would say The Force Awakens has three major elements which could be ‘spoiled’, so is well worth trying to see with as little knowledge as possible. If you haven’t seen it yet, you should really do so before reading the rest.

Here’s a video to make it less tempting to read on:

The Force Awakens: True Successor or big-budget Fan Fiction? (SPOILERS!)

Over the first half an hour of the film I alternated between feeling that scenes, characters and designs were either not Star Wars enough, or just too much like old Star Wars. I finally realised I was holding the movie to an impossible standard, and substantially enjoyed the rest of it.

But by the end, it was undeniable: The Force Awakens looks a lot like a remake of 1977’s A New Hope. To try to make that assessment more fairly, I picked the most important 10 story elements from each and put them side-by-side:

Episode IV: A New Hope Episode VII: The Force Awakens
Opening arc of The Hero’s Journey Opening arc of The Hero’s Journey
Scrappy underdogs vs. Fascist Military Scrappy underdogs vs. Fascist Military
Destroy planet-scale superweapon Destroy planet-scale superweapon
Death of the mentor Death of the mentor
Protagonist triumphs through skill and faith Protagonist triumphs through skill and faith
Males free female from captivity Males free female from captivity (subverted)
MacGuffin in a droid: superweapon plans MacGuffin in a droid: location of old hero
Escape from a death trap Male frees male from captivity
Triumphant return of a protagonist Bad guy turns good
Conclude with award ceremony Conclude with ambiguous meeting with old hero

So that’s 50% alike, 20% related, 30% new.

I can’t help wondering if this was actually the master plan: take the structure of the most successful of the series, add a scriptwriter of the most well-regarded, have the original cast pass the baton to the new, and laugh all the way to the bank. It seems to have worked.

In terms of style, I was very pleased to find it kept my favourite things from all of the Star Wars films: the adventure-serial (more mysterious back-story), family melodrama, and a script much more like Empire than any of the others (which makes sense, given Lawrence Kasdan’s involvement).

Let’s Get Nerdy (MORE SPOILERS)

Finally, as a Star Wars fan I can’t leave off without addressing some of the questions people tend to ask immediately after seeing the film.

How did Kylo Ren get beaten by amateurs?

The movie goes to extraordinary lengths to show Chewbacca’s bowcaster as some kind of devastating superweapon. Kylo Ren then gets shot with it, and the movie emphases his heavy bleeding and difficulty with the wound. Meanwhile it’s fair to assume Finn has some training in melee combat, and so is able to slightly injure Kylo’s sword-arm before being beaten. This means when Rey enters the fight, she’s fresh, and has been demonstrated capable in melee combat, while Kylo has two serious injuries!

How can Rey be so good with the Force so quickly?

I wondered this while watching the film, but it’s worth benchmarking. Anakin could drive pod-racers at inhuman speed at age 9, and demonstrated some sort of telepathy / far-seeing (in Yoda’s simple test) with no training. Luke deflects three blaster bolts while blindfold on his second try, uses the force to make a missile shot that was ‘impossible, even for a computer’, and later extracts a lightsaber from ice, again with no formal training.

By contrast, Rey does a Jedi mind trick on her third go, and beats Kylo Ren in a lightsaber summoning contest; in the latter case we again have his injuries to consider, and she was also pulling in the same direction as him.

Why did R2 take so long to wake up?

This requires some mumbo jumbo about R2 taking a while to process the information of BB-8 returning with the map piece and to come out of hibernation. The real reason is if he woke up immediately, it would create a difficult story-fork between fighting Starkiller Base and seeking out Luke.

Where are these planets relative to one another in the galaxy?

It’s unclear how Starkiller Base can really be “aimed” at another solar system, but apparently it can. We’re told it can somehow shoot through hyperspace, hence the ability to hit something light-years away. Dramatically less justifiable is that in a completely separate solar system, it’s possible to look in the sky and see the beam traverse and hit several planets in real time.

The only ‘explanation’ is that Star Wars is fantasy, not science fiction: planets are simply locations that are ‘far apart’, hence their uniform environment and the fact that everything that takes place on a planet seems to happen in one very small part of it. The worst offender in the original trilogy was arguably Empire, in which the Millennium Falcon apparently travels between two solar systems without a hyperdrive in a matter of weeks.

Who is Rey?

Child of Solo and Leia? Seems very weird they did not mention her when discussing their past troubles in The Force Awakens.

Grandchild of Kenobi? Seems very weird given that in Empire it is Kenobi’s ghost who says “That boy is our last hope” and Yoda who says “No… there is another”. Unless Yoda followed up with “Oh, and didn’t you also have a kid at some point, how are they getting on?”

Child of Skywalker? It seems insane he would abandon her with no training, and the whole bit with Kylo turning to the dark side and disrupting things comes much later.

In terms of trying to second-guess the series, I think it’s worth remembering that A New Hope set up Empire’s surprise-parentage twist by explicitly lying about it! As reliable old Ben told Luke, “A young Jedi named Darth Vader […] betrayed and murdered your father.”

So, and as usual: trust no one.

- Transmission finally ends

Things November 2015: Movie ratings, Pain, Empathy and Expathy

Movie Rating Distribution

Walt Hickey was curious about the ratings on Fandango (which are clearly suspect), but in his investigation he brought together this nice collection of rating distribution data:

Just as I found when considering the ratings of animated movies, IMDB ratings tend to span around 5.5 to 8.3, whereas Rotten Tomatoes actually spans 0% to 100%.

Check out the whole thing to discover some of Fandango’s shenanigans.

Pain is Really Strange

For excellent research and presentation of a complex and important topic, I highly recommend the comic Pain is Really Strange by Steve Haines and illustrated by Sophie Standing:

Copyright © Steve Haines 2015, Illustrations Copyright © Sophie Standing 2015, reproduced by permission of Jessica Kingsley Publishers

The key insight is that pain (and particularly chronic pain) does not correlate reliably with tissue damage, with psychological / neurological factors also playing a huge part. I was particularly interested to find out that the term “slipped disc” is not only innaccurate, but can actually cause a patient to experience more pain than if a more benevolent-sounding term is used!

I give this the Thing of the Month award. Go check it out on the publisher’s site or put it on a Christmas wishlist at Amazon.

(Also just out, Trauma is Really Strange, which I assume to be similarly good).

Mobile Game: Horizon Chase

If you enjoyed any racing games from the 80s or early 90s, Horizon Chase is a brilliant throwback to the gameplay of that era. You can buy it on iOS, or, in a fascinating nod towards the different store design that represents a whole other subject I’ll get to one of these days, you can get the first few levels for free before paying to unlock the rest on Android.

Three things to know:

  • Features fake driving physics, which is more fun than real driving physics! (I found the article about how they achieved this quite fascinating).
  • Your car has a slower acceleration but faster top speed than all the others! This means every race is about overtaking your way from last place to first, which is the most fun thing.
  • The soundtrack is chiptune-tastic and by Barry Leitch if that means anything to you.

Empathy vs. the Viral Straw Men

Empathy: Understanding the experience of others.

Othering: Explicitly or (more often) implicitly suggesting a group or particular person is somehow “different”, with intent to slightly turn the listener against that group/person.

These two concepts are often tied up with our tribe-like identities: when someone we consider to be “one of thus” says something, we tend to empathise; when someone from an opposing tribe says something, we consider them ‘Other’ and tend towards the opposite of empathy – I don’t see a good term for it but we could call it “expathy”.

The Daily Mail provides regular examples of this. News stories about people the paper wants us to feel sympathy for will emphasise the traits that align them with the presumed Mail readership’s tribal identity: atomic families, hard-workers, church-goers.  Stories that tilt the opposite way will make note of how their subjects differ from this group: single mums, people on benefits, followers of other religions or atheists. Describing a group of people as a “swarm” is an Othering technique.

As is often the case, it’s easier to see this mechanism at work in others than ourselves. A liberal encountering a conservative expressing their views on wealth redistribution might demonstrate expathy by assuming the conservative hates poor people, worships money, and is selfish – but the conservative may be none of those things, and genuinely believe that if policy reflected their views perfectly, everyone that truly “deserves” success would get it. (You can tell I’m a liberal and still can’t shake the expathy from the distancing quotation marks).

Similarly, a conservative encountering a liberal expressing their views on wealth redistribution demonstrates expathy when they assume the liberal is blind to real-world complications, and/or that they are some kind of Western-society-hating communist.

If you want to understand someone and possibly even try to change their mind, empathy rather than expathy seems a good place to start. I think this is what lies behind the quote:

Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that
– Martin Luther King, Jr

If you need more practical advice on how to do that, Daniel Dennett has it:

1. Attempt to re-express your target’s position so clearly, vividly and fairly that your target says: “Thanks, I wish I’d thought of putting it that way.”

2. List any points of agreement (especially if they are not matters of general or widespread agreement).

3. Mention anything you have learned from your target.

4. Only then are you permitted to say so much as a word of rebuttal or criticism.

I think this is particularly important as the tribe-shaping influence of social media means that content which mocks straw-man versions of opponents’ views goes viral but only serves to polarise us and silence meaningful debate.

Digital Culture update: Music Industry Seems Fine Actually

I’ve  been very curious to know the impact the internet has had on the music industry now that the dust has somewhat settled. More importantly, how are the actual musicians doing? John B sends in this NY Times article which does a wonderful job of rounding up the pertinent data (for the US at least), and finds that things are actually looking pretty good.

Things updates: Propellers and Music

Back in Things 80 (September 2010) I shared a surreal photo of a spinning propeller generated by the rolling shutter effect. Richard sends in a link to these lovely animations that make this process much clearer!

After discussing various ways music can be reworked last month, people continue to send in interesting examples.

Deb sends in a rare example of the ‘remix’ in which the lyrics are the only part that has been preserved, with Tom Basden’s version of Mamma Mia:

For my part, I realised I forgot one of my all-time favourites, The Apples’ jazzy instrumental take on Rage Against the Machine’s famous Christmas number 1, Killing in the Name:

Laurence points to the strange outlier that is the French version of the A-Team theme tune, complete with weird lyrics. He further provides an example concatenating as many examples of reworking as possible in a series with Hooked on a Feeling, which I paraphrase here:

  • The original is by B.J. Thomas
  • This was … somethinged … and had the ‘ooga chaka’s added by Blue Swede (This is the version that most people know from ‘Reservoir Dogs’ and ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’.)
  • The Blue Swede version was covered by David Hasselhoff
  • And the Hasselhoff version was relyriced by David A. Scott of Literal Video:

Is it possible to find a longer string, or one covering more types of rework?!

- Transmission finally ends

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:

(In case of removed video, try this search)

 

(In case of removed video, try this search)

 

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.

 – Transmission finally ends