Category Archives: New

Things February 2018: YouTube series, Poor estimation, The Patriarchy

The patriarchal explanation

The Octonauts is a charming kids TV series, based on the picture books of the same name (referenced in the Things Kids Special in 2013). It features eight anthropomorphised animals on a Star-Trek-style mission to explore the ocean and encounter the Interesting Sea Creature of the Week.

I noticed that the same three (male) characters go on exploratory missions almost every episode, even when other (female) characters would be better qualified for the task at hand, which seemed odd for an otherwise progressive kids TV series. Looking for people who agreed with me on the internet, as you do, I stumbled upon this excellent mumsnet exchange:

Bumperlicious:  Why are the girls relegated to mere sidekicks & not even mentioned in the opening titles? Is because they’re girls or because they’re both [foreign]?

TunipTheHollowVegemalLantern:  It is because of the patriarchy.

This turns out to be a highly versatile response which you can use to answer many questions about modern culture! It also has the benefit of sounding like a joke, while also frequently being accurate.

YouTube series of note

The Vox ‘Earworm‘ series by Estelle Caswell digs into various aspects of music, including a few really interesting pieces on long-term musical trends in the US pop charts. I particularly enjoyed the episodes on the triplet flow in rap, the fade-out, and especially repetition:

The ‘Fictional Fight Commentary‘ series does exactly what you hope: pitch-perfect delivery from Auralnauts creators Craven and Zak commenting on various famous fight scenes from movies. My personal favourite is the Revenge of the Sith Anakin/Obi-wan fight, but the Batman vs. Superman one is also great.

(Incidentally, Auralnauts had the dubious honour of having a video in which they removed the original music track get flagged as copyright infringing – for using the music track they removed, by the copyright holders of the song that was no longer present. Also incidentally, they made the generic film trailer I put in the last Things).

Every Frame A Painting was an incredible series of videos about movies and I’m amazed I haven’t featured it in Things before. It’s narrated by Tony Zhou, jointly written and edited with Taylor Ramos – although this latter part was only revealed in the post-mortem, the reasons explained in more detail by Taylor herself here, but more tersely one can say It Is Because Of The Patriarchy.

Aiming for quality over quantity, all 28 EFAP videos are brilliant, but as you have to start somewhere, I particularly recommend Jackie Chan – How to Do Action Comedy, The Spielberg Oner, and The Marvel Symphonic Universe.

Terrorism using the media as a megaphone

As I understand it, the aim of a regular terrorist is to create terror disproportionate to the amount of power they actually have. So perhaps the media response to these incidents should be a little more tempered, since that attention is exactly how terrorists gain a disproportionate response. I’m not sure there’s any good way to balance that though, especially with social media doing much of the amplification.

Still, I found it interesting that this quite wide-ranging study found a correlation between media coverage and subsequent violent incidents.

 “one additional New York Times article about an attack in a particular country increased the number of ensuing attacks in the same country by between 11% and 15%”

Poor estimation as a feature, not a bug

When doing indoor rock-climbing, or during my brief dalliance with extremely amateur parkour, I noticed that I and others tend to underestimate what we can physically achieve. We could jump further than we thought; we could stretch to reach a hand-hold that seemed too far; we could gain greater lift by running and kicking off a wall than we expected, and so on.

Now, I know that “evolutionary psychology” theories are usually untestable and often useless, simply servicing to reinforce one’s existing prejudices. Still, it’s easy to imagine that this physical capability bias (which I haven’t found named, but presumably must be) would work as a survival trait: creatures that overestimated their ability to achieve physical feats would presumably be at a mortal disadvantage in the long run.

This led me to wonder about another tremendously strong bias we have that runs the other way: the Planning Fallacy, best summed up by Hofstadter’s Law:

It always takes longer than you expect, even when you take into account Hofstadter’s Law. — Douglas Hofstadter

Superficially this bias seems like it should be a disadvantage. However, since many humans can benefit from one human’s work, perhaps we collectively benefit, as people work on things (and eventually, sometimes, complete them) that they wouldn’t have tried if they had correctly anticipated how long it would take, to society’s benefit.

It’s a trivial example, but I naively thought I could tell a particular story in a comic at one page a week in two years; it ended up taking more like seven. I probably wouldn’t have started it if I had realised that, but I’m glad that I did it, and now people – or at least, fans of two particular video games from 1999 – benefit from it.


When I first read about Bitcoin, I figured it was a cute idea but it didn’t scale, so couldn’t really work as an alternative global currency. Some of the scaling issues are now becoming apparent. As is so often the case, Charlie Stross has an insightful take on the matter.

Unendurable Line

I found this video quite satisfying:

Marie Kondo

In an age of abundance, we now routinely run into the problem of having too many things, and things like loss aversion make it difficult for us to deal with the issue. This scene from Labyrinth (1986) makes a lot more sense to me now than it did as a child:

Clare introduced me to a comic that summarised the ‘KonMari’ method (by Marie Kondo) of dealing with clutter. It isn’t really one method so much as a series of ideas and principles to apply to the task of decluttering. I think it’s particularly effective because it intuitively gets at some of the biases that make this a difficult problem. Here’s a few choice principles:

  • Don’t sort things by location, sort by type. Get all your (say) books in one place, then figure out what to do with them.
  • Don’t think about ‘what can I throw out’. Think about ‘what should I keep’. Only keep things that ‘spark joy’.
  • Don’t buy more storage units. This is sort-of tidying up, but isn’t decluttering. It’s just a way of getting the clutter out of your sight.
  • The correct time to read a book is when it’s you just acquired it. If you have many books you have not read for years, let them go. When it’s time to read one, you can easily get it again.

Most deeply, Marie Kondo observes that a lot of useless clutter takes us out of the present moment: we over-attach to the past with belongings that are no longer useful to us, and we over-attach to a theoretical future version of ourselves by keeping things we aspire to use but never will.

This echoes a message from the amazing show The Encounter (recommended to me by Tarim), in which a climactic insight is that “objects hold us stuck in time”.

There’s a KonMari method book or alternatively a comic version.

[This just in, thanks to Anisa – there’s going to be a Marie Kondo Netflix series – T.M. 15/2/18]

Emergent Stop Motion

Like a more accessible version of Thomas Sauvin / Lei Lei’s short film Recycled, Oliver KMIA’s ‘Instravel’ compiles recurring patterns in Instagram holiday photos to create stop-motion-style animation:

- Transmission finally ends

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