Things June 2015: Trolley problems, Crystal Maze, Car Review

Lesser known Trolley problems

Trolley problems are thought experiments in ethics in which one typically evaluates who one might sacrifice to save someone else, as well as whether inaction involves less culpability than action. They quite neatly distil certain ethical problems, but are also so extreme and implausible that it feels slightly uncomfortable to draw general conclusions from them.

I recall an interesting debate on the radio in which someone was proposing measures to protect endangered wild tigers (at some cost to some group of humans; I don’t remember exactly what), and she was given the following challenge: if you had a gun, and one of these endangered tigers was about to attack and kill a man, would you shoot the animal? “I don’t think that’s a very useful question,” she responded, “for example, what if that man had killed your daughter. Would you still choose to shoot the tiger then?” to which they responded: “Well that’s just silly.”

Anyway, here’s a nice collection of examples along those lines: Lesser known Trolley problems variations. For example:

There’s an out of control trolley speeding towards four workers. Three of them are cannibalistic serial killers. One of them is a brilliant cancer researcher. You have the ability to pull a lever and change the trolley’s path so it hits just one person. She is a brilliant cannibalistic serial killing cancer researcher who only kills lesser cancer researchers. 14% of these researchers are Nazi-sympathizers, and 25% don’t use turning signals when they drive. Speaking of which, in this world, Hitler is still alive, but he’s dying of cancer.


Stop YouTube Autoplay

Most internet companies make money from advertising, and therefore (only slightly indirectly) from your attention. As a result, once they have your attention, they are desperate to keep it. That’s why you’ll see other articles heavily pushed at you when you finish reading one (or even when you’ve just started reading one, as that’s when most people will bail), why Spotify will do anything with its UI to trick you into listening to a never-ending stream of music rather than just what you chose, and why, most recently, YouTube has started automatically forwarding you from the end of your chosen video to the start of one that it has algorithmically guessed you might like (or are perhaps least likely to stop).

YouTube’s algorithm is pretty good, so this is a little bit like being provided with a bottomless bowl of nachos that’s difficult to stop eating from. In order to take the bowl away, you have to switch off the little switch at the top of the recommended videos list on the right, like so.


Review of a petrol car

I enjoy reviews in which Status quo bias is revealed by reviewing something with that bias reversed (I mentioned a couple in Things 130). In particular, we tend to take the disadvantages of existing technology for granted, so when a new technology has different disadvantages it can seem much worse. Here, Tesla Club Sweden review a petrol car.

One could hear the engine’s sound and the car’s whole body vibrated as if something was broken, but the seller assured us that everything was as it should. The car actually has an electric motor and a microscopically small battery, but they are only used to start the petrol engine – the electric motor does not drive the wheels. The petrol engine then uses a tank full of gasoline, a fossil liquid, to propel the car by exploding small drops of it. It is apparently the small explosions that you hear and feel when the engine is running.

Origin of the Crystal Maze

A lovely look back at how the Crystal Maze came about, and the logistics of filming the show.

We were going back and forth to Paris and one day they drove us to an industrial part of Paris and opened a warehouse door and there was a crystal dome. We said, “What are you doing with that?” They said, “We don’t don’t know, we just built it, but we don’t know what to do with it.” We said, “We’ll have that!”

GIF of the month

Helps if you’ve seen Pacific Rim, but not essential.

– Transmission ends


Things 123: Game weekends, Puffins, Lilith, Abstract Animated GIFs

Events Sandpit this very weekend (25th August), Weekender later (Fri 14th-Sun 16th September)
Hide & Seek are running one of their curated ‘Sandpit’ game events, taking place on Saturday and Sunday afternoons this weekend (25th and 26th August), unusually but awesomely located at the Natural History Museum. NHM page is here; a longer article about what’s happening can be found on Wired.

Then, from Friday 14th through to Sunday 16th September is Hide & Seek’s Weekender (facebook event here), mostly in the Clore Ballroom in that Royal Festival Hall place, this being as usual a whole festival of games, largely drawn from Sandpit events from the last two years.

This happens to include Competitive Sandwich Making on the Friday, which Clare and I will be running (here’s what happened last year when we ran first), this time featuring a secret rank beyond Earl of Sandwich, if people are competitive enough to discover it. There’s also lots of other amazing things happening, including two of my favourites: Die Gute Fabrik’s Johann Sebastien Joust and Viviane Schwarz’s Treasure Maze.

Tim Link – You’re In A Room
I finally wrote up the game Clare and I made for a more recent Sandpit: You’re In A Room, a sort of Whose Line Is It Anyway version of Knightmare; you can find out what on earth that means here.

Video – Puffin Webcam
In the exciting new world of putting webcam streams onto my TV for background entertainment, now that the Miranda’s Kittens feed is no longer live, I’ve had to find something else. It turns out there’s a whole range of great feeds available on, including a puffin cam.

Bonus videovia Clare while I was writing this
Dog swims with dolphins!

I recently wondered what really is the deal with the biblical (or is she?) character of Lilith, so I turned to Wikipedia on the subject, and found it fascinating – here’s just the section headings to give you an idea of the span of cultural records she appears in:

Mesopotamian mythology
Siegmund Hurwitz
In the Bible
Jewish tradition
Greco-Roman mythology
Arabic mythology
In Western literature
In modern occultism

The highlight for me was discovering that Lilith only appears once in the bible, and even then arguably so, in Isiah 34:

(13) [Edom] shall become an abode for jackals and a haunt for ostriches. (14) Wildcats shall meet with desert beasts, satyrs shall call to one another; There shall the lilith repose, and find for herself a place to rest. (15) There the hoot owl shall nest and lay eggs, hatch them out and gather them in her shadow; There shall the kites assemble, none shall be missing its mate. (16) Look in the book of the LORD and read: No one of these shall be lacking, For the mouth of the LORD has ordered it, and His spirit shall gather them there.

This makes “lilith” (in the bible at least) a hapax legomenon, a word only occurring once in the source and therefore challenging to decipher – given only this context, is she a demon, or just some kind of regular animal with sinister associations?

I also recommend reading this translation of Isiah 34 in full (it’s only ~400 words), as it’s use of hyperbole puts our modern tabloid newspapers and comment trolls to shame.

Pictures – Abstract Animated GIFs
I’ve seen some interesting abstract animated GIFs floating around the internet, and tracked them down to two artists: David Ope, and Mr Div. Here’s one example of each, and do click through to view the rest of their work:

David Ope:

Mr Div:

Puzzle – The shrinking empires
Here’s an unfortunately small version of a fascinating visualisation of world history (which we bought as a poster for the office from Stanfords, although they don’t seem to have them any more), with time running from left to right, and rough location on earth from top to bottom, with identifiable countries/kingdoms/empires marked out:

You can just about see the Roman Empire as a big blob of orange in the middle, the Ottoman Empire in blue towards the right, and the British Empire stretching wide in patches of red before retreating back home by the time we reach the right-hand side representing the present day.

Even at this scale, one pattern is apparent: they just don’t make empires as big as they used to. The closer we get to the present day, the smaller the tribal groups become. Why is this?


Things 92: Walk Straight, Marmite Looks, One Day Music Experience Timeline

A nice bit of rotoscope animation that asks the question “Why can’t we walk straight?”

As an intriguing to follow-up to the question in Things 89 on why perceptions of attractiveness vary, OK Cupid have posted a related result: greater variation in attractiveness rating scores tends to generate more messages on the service.

The fact they say “men will get their turn under the microscope” might mean that the same result does not hold true for men, or they might just not have checked yet.

I’ve recently been enjoying a handy little shortcut in Firefox that lets me jump straight to search results on certain sites without reaching for the mouse.

Start by clicking the dropdown option against the search box, and click ‘manage search engines’:

From this menu, pick a search engine you commonly use and click ‘edit keyword’, I recommend something very short:

You can then query your chosen search engine by jumping to the location bar (Ctrl + L) then preceeding your search with your chosen keyword. For example, I can type “Ctrl + L” and then “wa how old was pat morita when karate kid came out”, press enter, and get straight to the answer without any clicks of the mouse.

(Rotten Tomatoes doesn’t seem to have this option, but there’s a Firefox add-on which is a slight improvement).

A nice way to illustrate the changes technology has wrought on the radio music experience over the last 20 years, with only a little exaggeration (click for big):

No Puzzle
According to the schedule of rotating absence, there’s no puzzle this week, but feel free to think about why we can’t walk in a straight line if you like.

Last Week’s Question
Last week I asked if anyone else had noticed a sudden surge in the misuse of “i.e.” and “e.g.”. Not many had, but a lot of people had something to say on the subject… probably enough for a whole post by itself, but I’ll attempt to quote in brief the different responses.

First, a few admitted to not being certain of the distinction themselves, even when they were sticklers in other areas, so I suppose that means I’ve done my bit to stem the tide somewhat.

The question on living vs prescribed language raised a few responses in itself. Maria noted:

The French spoken [in Montreal] is a pure and true form of ‘old’ french, ‘where for art thou’ for example. When Montrealers go to France their version of French is hardly understood which just goes to show that languages must and do evolve or we’d be speaking like players in a Shakespeare play.

Angela confessed that:

… I am afflicted and am involuntarily irritated by things like this that really should not be so irritating to me! The most frequent examples I can recall seeing include your i.e. / e.g.; everyday / every day; and unnecessary apostrophes e.g. potatoe’s, kid’s. In all cases I think that the incidence rate is increasing and we may well have passed a tipping point whereby ‘everyday’ will now mean both ‘everyday’ and ‘every day’ for ever more.

… and agreed that it’s better to let these things go, unless the error could lead to a misunderstanding, in which case it’s worth pointing out.

Rik provided a link to a tongue-in-cheek view on the book “Eats, Shoots and Leaves”, which among a lot of hyperbolic fuming makes the following point:

We are not computers which can be thrown off course by the insertion of a full stop here or a rogue hyphen there. We have a deeper understanding of meaning which you can check out for yourself by a quick reading of Chomskys writings on transformational grammar.

Simon identified a potential underlying factor behind rising misuse:

Latin stopped being taught in UK state schools during the 60s. At approximately the same time, English grammar died out as a subject because people thought it harked back to a redundant time. […] With the loss of learning through grammatical structure we have moved as a society from having a right way of doing something to adopting what society does. […] A case of crede quod habes – et habes if ever there was one.

Miranda gave further endorsement to the importance of Latin by nothing that in the case of “i.e.” and “e.g.” anyone lucky enough to have learned the language at school can easily remember which is which by recalling what the abbreviations stand for. She also pointed out that Dinosaur Comics recently addressed the issue of prescriptivism:

Finally, Xuan asks

Anyways, why did we start using e.g. and i.e. in the first place? Didn’t the Romans bugger off around 400AD?

Incidentally, in an attempt to find evidence that fewer people cared about the distinction between “i.e.” and “e.g.” I turned, as usual, to Google Insights for Search, only to find results that suggest the trend is going the other way. Alternatively, technological changes mean more is being written down by more people than ever before, so there’s more of both.


Things 23: Google Trends, Talking Pets, Growing Beard

(Originally sent August 2008)

This week’s colon-heavy sequels
X-Files: I Want To Believe: Only for hard-core X-Files continuity-followers, does not warrant a big screen.

Hellboy II: The Golden Army: Great example of how to do a ridiculous and silly film that leaves the audience smiling.

The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor: Great example of how to do a ridiculous and silly film that leaves an audience feeling they wasted their time and money.

Next Week’s films
Next week I may take myself to see Space Chimps, purely because I heard that the second half goes crazy psychedelic and makes no sense, which is often a good sign.

IMDb: 3.7/10, RT: 34%.

Er… perhaps not then.

A Puzzle
Google Trends shows search volume over time, which is often fascinating. For example, we can see that in the eternal battle between pirate and ninja, 2004 was a key turning point.

You can also use it to track the popularity of different things rather well. For example, the decline of the wrist watch as mobile phones render them redundant:

Given all this, how do you explain the following apparent decline?

As Yasmin is leaving, here’s a line I remember from her that I would love to get into a screenplay some day:
Yasmin: “Oh, I’m not looking for a man to marry. I just want a man to… buy me dinner.”

This week it has to be Talking Pets!

Nursery rhymes performed by modern artists (just audio really, the visuals are cobbled together by someone with MS Paint):

Me growing a beard.