Tag Archives: biology

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 Let’s see how out of date it is…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 59: Building Projection, Plant Sculpture, and the Train Problem

(Originally sent October 2009)

I saw Surrogates, which was a strong enough concept (with relevance to the kind of changes we will see in the coming decades, even if we don’t quite achieve fully robotic avatars affordable by 98% of the population) that it maintained interest despite the weak writing and characters.

Technology unlocks surprising things. Witness the kind of trompe l’oeil magic that can now be achieved by virtue of having a powerful enough digital projector:

If you like that, there’s more here.

Highlighted in the final part of last week’s issue of The Week, this article from pseudonymous postman Roy Mayall casts an interesting light on the current wrangling with Royal Mail.

Key quote from towards the end:

“There is a tension between the Royal Mail as a profit-making business and the Royal Mail as a public service. For most of the Royal Mail management … it is the first. To the delivery officer … it is more than likely the second.”

The current ongoing (in)action would seem to stem directly from this tension.

Sculpture/carpentry/architecture with living plants.

I suspect this would seem less benign if the same modificiations to a natural form could be carried out within minutes instead of over the course of years.

I mentioned this puzzle in a recent discussion stemming from Things and it sparked a lot of interest. Here is a version only slightly modified from the way I originally heard it from Laurence:

Trains leaving station A only go to station B. A single from A to B costs £3. A return from A to B and back again costs £5. A woman walks into train station A for the first time in her life. She goes up to the counter and hands the cashier £5. Without either of them saying a word she is given a return ticket and leaves happy. How did the cashier know what she wanted?

The original version, along with many other puzzles, can be found here:


(Note that I think this puzzle should now be filed in the first section).

Before you are tempted to ask someone for help with this puzzle, please see this warning / subtle hint.

-Transmission Ends