Tag Archives: argument

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 52: Pug Baroo, Location Based Services, Argument Visualisation

(Originally sent June 2009)

Last week, Things was once again postponed due to time pressures burning my midnight oil candles at both ends. However, now that both my IDM evening course and my PhD are over, I theoretically have more time, and I’ve also made progress with my answer to the puzzle from Things 46 on how to get things done at sub-weekly intervals (see puzzles section below), so future updates may return to regularity.

I finally caught Synecdoche, New York. Imagine Charlie Kaufman (Being John Malkovich, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) doing a ‘Memento Mori‘ piece. It’s like that. I think it’s the best film I’ve seen since Speed Racer, which is a statement almost entirely devoid of utility or cogency.


It’s been quite a while since I featured a ‘cute animal’ video. Here’s three pug puppies demonstrating the comedic value of turning your head on one side when confused, an action which, as I understand it, is referred to as ‘baroo’ in cute animal watching circles.

Location based services – most commonly applications on your mobile that help you do things by knowing where you are through GPS or mobile phone mast signal interpolation – are on their way. (In terms of the hype cycle I think they are currently falling from the ‘peak of inflated expectation’ to the ‘trough of disillusionment’ before finding genuine utility). Mathew Honan tested a bunch of these services and wrote about it in Wired, in a long but important article.

My personal take is that most of the services he tries are like MySpace in that they work okay when the only other people on there are People Like You, but in order to scale they will need Facebook-like privacy control. (Specifically more like the new controls Facebook are adding to the publisher, and I also suspect a time window would be added – e.g. Share my live location with these people, for the next 8 hours only).


I like to think the years I spent in higher education were successful by this rubric:

“Nothing you learn in the course of your studies will be of the slightest possible use to you in later life – save only this: that if you work hard and intelligently, you should be able to detect when a man is talking rot. And that, in my view, is the main, if not the sole purpose of education.”  – John Alexander Smith


I’m interested in creating useful visual representations of arguments, as I feel sure there is a good way to do it, but I haven’t seen one yet. (I’m currently working on an idea for one which will appear in Things when I have a first draft).

Here’s a version for the same-sex marriage debate by Patrick Farley, based on observed debates on Facebook, which is pretty good (click for big):

This week’s puzzle
As the number of people on the CC list for Things has grown, the amount of reply-to-all discussion seems to have decreased. Currently there are 11 people on it, including me.

It seems clear that some threshold has been passed and a CC list discussion really works best with around 5 people.

The puzzle is, how should this be resolved? For example, I could create one CC list for the first 5 people that were on it, and another for the rest. Or I could create one CC list for people from RAPP, and another for everyone else.

Both of these solutions have disadvantages. What do you think?

On a related note, how do you think I should credit people’s answers to each Week’s puzzles? (In the example below, I summarise the answers people gave that matched my own thinking, and cite by first name the answer I hadn’t considered).

Puzzle from Things 46
I asked for good ways to develop routines with time periods somewhere between daily and weekly. My answer was a spreadsheet programmed with the intended goals and frequencies and set to load up when I switch on my PC.

After trying this out for a few weeks it seems to be successful, and I’ve uploaded a demo version. For a given task, a given ‘davelength’ (a portmanteau of ‘day’ and ‘wavelength’, setting the intended number of days I want to elapse between instances of the task), and a weighting factor, the spreadsheet highlights if I am due to do any tasks today, and if so, which one to prioritise. Upon completing the task I just have to enter the current date in the ‘Date last done’ field.

It would probably work well as an iPhone app, which means someone has probably done it already.

Last week’s puzzle
Reasons people prefer reading writing on paper than a screen seem to breakdown in to 3 main categories:

1) Visual. Resolution and emissivity of screens are issues. In principle technology should be able to overcome these concerns.
2) Convenience. A piece of paper can be folded and put in a pocket, annotated, pinned to a wall, doesn’t need electricity, and is easily carried around to read in many situations. But once again, technology could theoretically match this in most regards, and exceed it in others – think adjustable font size, editing rather than crossing out, digital annotations (including a social aspect), searchable text, and backed up data, for a start.
3) Cultural Inertia. Even if technology addresses other concerns, people that have grown up reading from paper will be resistant to change. The added convenience factors mentioned above will have to be significant before a real transition can take place. (Thanks to Laurence for pointing out this one).