Things 65: Trololo, Animation Analysis, Numerical Keyboards

(Originally sent March 2010, maybe)

What sort of old TV clip would spawn a dedicated site whose main purpose is simply to play it on loop? (Sound is essential)

I did a bit of analysis on the data that went into Disney’s decision to give up on 2D animation, including the correlation between how good a film is and how much money it makes:

Bad guy to henchman:

“Don’t you know what a rhetorical question is?!”

(From Leroy and Stitch)

Why do the numbers on phone keypads read left to right and down (so 1, 2, 3 are in the top row) whereas calculators and keyboards run the numbers left to right but upwards (with 1,2,3 in the bottom row)?

I think we’re just scratching the surface with the kind of art Photoshop helps us create.

Old Special

Things 61: Story Analysis Special

(Originally sent October 2009)

Recently I’ve come across a whole bunch of things that could be termed ‘story analysis’ – the appliance of science (or at least pattern-spotting) to the art of the story.

It started when I recently read Joseph Campbell’s “The Hero with a Thousand Faces”, in which he details the stages of the ‘Hero’s journey’ (or ‘monomyth’), an outline that he argues all great myths, legends, fairy tales and religious stories adhere to in one form or another. In terms of telling me a lot of smart stuff about a thing I don’t know much about, it’s one of the best books I’ve ever read, as it’s given me a fantastically clear lens through which to understand and analyse stories.

Amazon link

Wikipedia link (which is a great way to get most of the idea without reading the book):

As quoted in the Wikipedia article, a criticism of Campbell’s thesis by Donald J. Consentino:

“It is just as important to stress differences as similarities, to avoid creating a (Joseph) Campbell soup of myths that loses all local flavor.”

(Actually it’s clear from reading the book that Campbell positively delights in the local flavour, not to mention the fact that this criticism essentially misses the entire point, but it’s a nice quote anyway).

King of geekery monetisation Randal Monroe of XKCD has created nice diagrams showing character movement in films:

(click to view much larger)

(As with many things he’s done before, it’s something I’ve done at one point myself in a half-interested pencil and paper way, but he takes the idea to its logical conclusion and I fully expect it to appear shortly in his store as a poster, where similar things can be obtained ) [Yep, there it is. – T.M. 11/9/2011]

In the world of gaming there are additional constraints to storytelling, leading to some amazing homogeneity of story as recently brought to my attention by Simon in the following chart of BioWare game clichés.

Another Link
No coverage of pattern-spotting in stories would be complete without mentioning TV Tropes, a wiki for pretty much exactly that. Some examples:

Slouch Of Villainy

Obviously Evil

Very Special Episode

This Week’s Puzzle – Exceptions that prove the rule
Any attempt to find patterns in stories will encounter exceptions. A frequent response to this is to say “that’s the exception that proves the rule!”, which is a clever way of saying “the thing that proves me wrong actually proves me right, because I say so”. Of course, that’s a wilful misreading of the phrase, but the question naturally arises: how is that phrase supposed to be interpreted and used?

Last week’s puzzle – Showers
Showers are amazingly complicated, with feedback delays, mixing issues and subtle interactions of water pressure all conspiring to make the simple task of achieving a reasonable temperature surprisingly difficult, and I intend to write a blog post with more detail on these different factors at a later date.

Meanwhile, my own solution has been to set the hot water temperature on the boiler and not use the cold tap in the shower at all, thus sidestepping all of these issues.


Things 107: Transmedia Hardware, Rorschmap, Cyborgs vs Robots

Here’s a cute data analysis puzzle, which I’m amazed I didn’t encounter sooner in my line of work.

You run a website that sells guns and banjos, and one day you notice from your web analytics data that the conversion rate of your site (orders divided by visits) is steadily declining over time.

Realising that you essentially cater to two quite different needs, you look at the performance of your two main site sections: the gun section and the banjo section. There is no significant overlap between the people visiting these sections.

Here’s the problem. The conversion rates in both the gun and banjo sections of the site are going up over the same period that overall conversion is going down. How is this possible?

Some serious puppetry:

Charlie Gower realised he could get old iPod shuffles cheaply on eBay and dedicate each one to a single artist. Generalising, he asks, “How does the (almost) free hardware affect the delivery of the (almost) free media?

I’ll let the name of the idea do the talking: Rorschmap.

Puzzle AnswerCyborgs beat Robots
In the last Things I invited you to guess who would win in a chess match in which humans and computers could team up in any combination.

I recently read of an empirical answer here, which makes the excellent point that there are actually three criteria at work in any team: the chess skill of the computer(s), the chess skill of the human(s), and the friction in the way they work together as a team.

Some may be surprised to learn the most basic observation from the event: that a team of human + computer is much stronger than even an extremely powerful chess-playing computer. As Kasparov puts it: “Human strategic guidance combined with the tactical acuity of a computer was overwhelming.” Humans are useful!

More impressively, the winner of the tournament was a team of two amateur players working with three computers. The lack of friction in their system of working together beat the raw power of chess-playing supercomputers and the strategic brilliance of grandmasters.

This has some serious implications, too. Most simply, since mediocre computers and mediocre humans are more common than highly skilled ones, and since systems can be invented once and then used by all, there is in some general sense much more potential to solve hard problems than we might otherwise have expected in the world.

More extremely, anyone worried about a technological singularity in which we invent AI that is smarter than us (leading to runaway self-improvement of the AI and a very dangerous 4 hours for humanity) can rest assured that human-AI combinations will probably be smarter than pure AI.

Short version: cyborgs are smarter than robots.


Things 95: Modern Movies, How to be Happy, Mouse Mystery

A beautiful demonstration of physics (or perhaps chemistry):

Scott Rudin, quoted in this GQ article about why movies are all rubbish these days:

Studios are hardwired not to bet on execution, and the terrible thing is, they’re right. Because in terms of execution, most movies disappoint.

Incidentally, while there’s clearly a huge argument to be had about the relevance of the data to the argument, let’s just contextualise the “things are terrible now” discussion by looking at the breakdown of what proportion of pre-2010 films in the IMDb top 250 come from each decade:

We see a broad trend that is the opposite of the “films used to be better” argument, apart from a post-war spike.

As I said, this is a starting point for huge arguments, and if I was going to start one I would begin with one of the following:
-Any popularity poll will tend to bias more recent candidates
-Demographic bias of IMDb voters and the scoring calculation used for the IMDb Top 250 will skew the result away from the “Objective Truth” (ha ha ha) of the matter
-This data does not speak to the more important issue of ‘typical’ film quality by decade

This week’s question
A mouse can fall any distance and survive. How is this possible?

I’ve had this obvious-but-actually-important thought myself, and this is a pretty great way of expressing it:

Answer to the previous question
In Things 94, I asked why ovens didn’t come with a built-in thermomenter.

Uncharacteristically, the Things community was unable to answer – or perhaps you weren’t interested. So I asked the internet using my secret research alter-ego* on Yahoo Answers, and also on Quora just to try that out.

You can see the range of responses I received on Yahoo answers, some of which are quite useful. The question on Quora has yet to draw a response, so I’m guessing the community there is still too niche to cover this kind of thing.

Putting together the suggestions from YA and my own thoughts, this is my conclusion:

1) It’s difficult (and therefore expensive) to make an oven thermometer that will remain accurate for the device’s lifetime. If it wasn’t, I suspect ovens would be thermostat-based, and we wouldn’t have the problem to begin with. (As I said, baking books insist there is a problem, and anecdotally I can report my gas oven is almost two gas marks cooler than it should be, and adjusting for this significantly improved my baking results).

2) It also must be difficult (and therefore expensive) to design and calibrate an oven such that it accurately produces the intended temperatures throughout its lifetime, because (once again) if this wasn’t true the problem wouldn’t arise.

3) The solution to the problem is to have a separate thermometer and use it from time to time to calibrate your oven. That thermometer then doesn’t need to maintain integrity for every use of your oven, and even if it does break it’s much easier to replace than an integrated one would be.

4) Admitting there is even a problem looks bad, so any oven manufacturer supplying such a thermometer unit with its devices would be perceived as worse than those that pretend there isn’t a problem.

5) Even if a manufacturer did include a built-in thermometer, people unaware of the oven temperature problem would again presume the oven must be sub-standard to need one, and people that know enough to worry would realise an integral thermometer couldn’t be trusted for long.

I suspect similar principles apply to protective cases and screen protectors for mobile devices.

*A long time ago I thought it might be prudent to separate my question-asking online identity from my confident-and-opinionated online identity. This doesn’t seem quite as important any more, and now that Things is a blog it’s very easy for someone to connect the two anyway, so now I don’t worry about linking from one to the other. But I’ll still use it anyway.