Category Archives: New

Things September 2017 – Roads, Fish, DJ Shadow

Road Diet

If expanding or adding roads induces more people to drive and so creates worse overall flow, does it follow that reducing or removing roads could improve it? In some cases, yes. (Incidentally, that’s on, which you should definitely follow if you like Things, since it’s the same sort of idea but better).

Up All Night

Beck’s recent music video directed by Canada reminds me of what was (for me) the golden age of music videos, with a simple conceit, intriguing editing and strong visual metaphor, all well executed. I also like the way the choice of frame for the video thumbnail sets expectations:

If you want to know about Numbers

Via Clare, there is a Wikipedia article for the number 1001, which is nice, but does raise certain questions. Fortunately, some of those questions can be answered in the ambitiously-titled article List of Numbers.

Death and Social Media

As Facebook continues to execute its global man-in-the-middle manipulation/monetisation of social interaction, it unsurprisingly runs into some very difficult territory. Reading their blog series on these topics, I’m actually quite impressed with their approach to social media mortality, and was very interested to read how they balance their policy on hate speech.

Generic Film Trailer

With Inception’s percussive brass sound slotting in alongside plenty of other tropes, witness a surprisingly compelling and fully generic trailer:

Would you Rather be a Fish?

Laurie Anderson’s song “Monkey’s Paw” has plenty of strange memorable phrases, but one stayed with me over the years: “Would you like to be… a fish?” The video embedded below is edited from relevant shots from the Terminator TV series, so don’t watch if you’re averse to cyborg gore:

In Jim Jarmusch’s Paterson (2016), the strange power of the phrase is explicitly noted in a poem:

… except of course he was referencing the song “Swinging on a Star”, which I assume first coined the phrase:

I rather like the idea that much as I was struck by Anderson’s aquatic question, she herself must have been similarly struck by it in Swinging on a Star, as were Jim Jarmusch (writer-director of Paterson) and/or Ron Padgett (poet for the film). All of which makes it all the more tragic that (via Clare) the opening of late 80’s kids series Out of This World reworked the lyrics to “Swinging on a Star” to present the dilemma of aliens choosing to live as humans on earth, but singularly failed to suggest the fish alternative.

What is it that makes a short phrase like this stand out? I’m reminded of Admiral Ackbar observing “It’s a trap!’ in Return of the Jedi, a far more banal turn of phrase which nonetheless gathered enough pop culture awareness that you can make a comic like this, and people will track down the original voice actor and get him to deliver the line eight different ways 33 years later and get 36,000 YouTube views as a result.

Mind you, Star Wars is the kind of overblown phenomenon that has entire phalanxes of fans dress like an obscure background character who happened to be carrying an odd-looking prop, so may not be the most reliable of reference points.

Find, Share, Rewind

DJ Shadow goes long on both the ‘D’ and ‘J’ elements, shooting to fame in 1996 with his debut album Endtroducing, possibly the first album composed entirely from samples, which he drew from his extensive and ever-growing vinyl collection. If you’re not familiar, the result is a lot more interesting than one might suppose.

DJ Shadow in his natural habitat

More than most artists, while he moves on musically, much of his fan base clings to the past. In a moment I expect is repeated often, at his recent gig in Brighton when he announced he would play “some old stuff and some new stuff” a member of the crowd shouted “No! Artistic stasis or death!”

Kind of. I mean, they actually just shouted “Old stuff!” but we all knew what they meant.

Anyway, the reason I bring up DJ Shadow is that he has (had?) a monthly 2-hour slot on KCRW to present some of his favourite music, and if you enjoy best-radio-station-in-the-world Fip, you might also like this, as it is similarly diverse and intriguing. There are four episodes up so you have an interesting eight hours ahead of you, if you choose to brave that path. Admittedly it starts at the less accessible end, but skip ahead in 15 minute increments for each major section if industrial electronic drone isn’t for you and you’d rather get to the Jefferson Airplane section.

Prince of Darkness (1987)

Things trivia postscript
Endtroducing’s brief ‘Transmission’ tracks (“You are receiving this broadcast as a dream”) – which I later found are sampled from the film Prince of Darkness (1987), a horror film just as mysterious and unnerving as the samples imply – are the reason I end Things posts like this:

- Transmission ends

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 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:

(In case of removed video, try this search)


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