Things 51: Beatles Rock Band, Google Squared, Ingenious Comics

(Originally sent June 2009)

Things now returns after a brief hiatus during which I revised for and took my IDM Diploma exams. They seemed to go okay.

I saw Terminator Salvation, which I can’t particularly recommend, and Blue Velvet (on DVD), which I can.

The intro to the Beatles specific Rock Band game is a wonderfully conceived and animated potted history of the band.

High quality video on the dedicated site:

YouTube quality if your PC isn’t up to it:

Link Google Squared is like Google’s approach to what Wolfram Alpha does. For example, if you search for planets, it tries to understand what you are looking for and what useful things you might like to know about instances of that thing, using Google algorithmic magic.

When Wolfram Alpha has an answer, it’s right – when it doesn’t have an answer, it has nothing. Google Squared lives in the fuzzy space in between.

As a side effect, this means you can use Google Squared as a kind of I-Ching / astrology / random fortune generator.

Try the following:

1) Go here
2) Put in your surname
3) If you get results, use ‘add items’ at the bottom to add the first names of your family – if you don’t get any results you will be given some blank fields in which you can enter the first names directly
4) In the top right you can add additional columns. Type in ‘awards’ and press ‘add’
5) Find out how much your family members have won according to the Google Squared lottery!

Personally I was found to have won HK$0.00, whereas my mum got $517,115.00.

You can see what it thinks about you in other ways – for example, add a column titled ‘orbital period’. Turns out my sister has an orbital period of 1,975.4045670 days!

‘Newsarse’ [Now NewsThump – T.M. 1/7/11] is like a less polished, UK version of The Onion, providing a satirical take on current events from a UK perspective.

I quite liked their take on YouTube comments:

YouTube’s spokesman states “we are pleased to offer not only graphic images of canine dismemberment, but also a platform for viewers’ irrelevant comments and violent outbursts of racism.”

In the past couple of weeks I saw two fascinating ways of doing something different with comics.

Choose-your-own-adventure comic based on reading speed:

One character going left to right, one top to bottom:

This week’s puzzle – paper
Why do people generally prefer to read writing on paper than on a screen?

Last puzzle – buttons
The puzzle regarding why buttons do up the way they do (one way for male and the other for female) is a difficult one, since answers cannot be proved, and as such it is all too easy to come up with one theory and feel the matter to have been resolved.

Here’s how I broke it down in reply to some suggestions on the CC list:

There are actually two questions bundled up – why is buttoning consistent, and why is it the way it is for the two genders.

– Buttoning requires both hands to perform a fairly dextrous action and has no particular handedness bias
– Being familiar with buttoning one way will tend to make clothes that button the other way less desirable
– People will tend to wear clothing items for their gender, not so often clothing of the opposite gender

Under these assumptions, we can expect consistency of buttoning to emerge for each sex (but not necessarily opposite to one another) from random starting conditions, and a slight bias one way or the other at the start is likely to have a strong effect on the final outcome.

Arguments could be made in each direction, as it would only take a small effect to tip things one way or the other.

I found an interesting viewpoint on why it should be the opposite way for males vs females in a seemingly well-informed article on a period costume site.

From the last paragraph:

“Since female clothing took on more and more features of male clothing in order to express emancipation […], it became necessary to establish a feature that signalled that an item of clothing was, despite its male appearance, nevertheless female.”


Things 50: Portal, Legalising Street Racing, Supply and Demand

(Originally sent June 2009)

An unusually long multi-lunch-break-requiring Things in unintentional celebration of hitting 50…

Things blog update
My attempts at setting up two WordPress blogs from a single database failed. I will see if I can set up a second database instead for a Things blog, in between revising for my IDM exams.
[Ultimately, that’s exactly what I did. – T.M. 28/5/11]

Yesterday I saw Sam Raimi’s Drag Me To Hell. It was an extraordinary experience that is difficult to describe – imagine the kind of inventive unpleasantness that happens to Wile E. Coyote applied to supernatural horror, maintaining some of the comedy aspect, and you begin to get some idea. The trailer sets out the premise very clearly but dramatically underplays the scares:

IMDb rating: 8.2
Rotten Tomatoes aggregate: 95%

This week I finally got around to playing Portal, a short but brilliant game which, for me, achieved the astounding feat of living up to its own considerable hype. Even if you’re not a gamer, the trailer is worth checking out just to see how nifty it is:

If that doesn’t float your boat, here’s a video of a cat that jumps into and out of a tall box. 1’19” is where the best jumping starts happening:

In a fascinating case study for debates on the merits of legalising/criminalising things, police in Florida have been running legal street races in which, for $25, people can attempt to “Beat the Heat”. They claim that given this controlled and safer outlet, they have seen a drastic reduction in illegal street racing.

[Original link is broken, the story is repeated here though – metatim 28/5/11]

[Okay, that link broke too, try this one – metatim 03/08/15]

Gavin Potter, a leading entrant for the NetFlix Prize (see this wired article) said:

“The 20th century was about sorting out supply. The 21st is going to be about sorting out demand.”

In other words, by solving problems of supply (think of all the information/products/services available to you via the web), we create a new problem related to demand – how do we sort through all this stuff?

I saw this articulated in the supermarket last week. A child had clearly been sent to pick up some juice, but was just staring at the shelving three times his height stocked with perhaps a 100 variations on fruit juice. His father turned up and asked what was wrong, to which the child replied with palpable desperation: “I can’t find any fruit juice!”

Here is a lovely graph demonstrating the relationship between Star Trek‘s warp speeds and energy requirements:

On a side note, in Star Trek the ships generate a bubble of distorted space around the ship, which to an outside observer means the ship appears to elongate as it sets off at warp speed. In Star Wars the ships instead enter hyperspace (warning: no basis in science), a kind of parallel universe in which distances are shorter / the speed of light is faster, so no elongation occurs.

Criminally, warp elongation was added to ships entering hyperspace in the Star Wars special editions.

This Week’s Puzzle: Buttons
Why are buttons on clothes for males placed on the opposite side to buttons on clothes for females?

Last Week’s Puzzle: Newspaper Eyeball Value
Last week I asked (roughly speaking) why newspapers are complaining about the internet when many have successful online sites with ads alongside articles just as in the print versions. I received some detailed responses and there’s clearly a lot more research that could be done, but here’s some of the main points:

1) Actually the main newspapers in the UK seem to be perfectly fine, with stable or even growing circulation figures. As JB put it: “I think alarm bells are being rung by consumers that don’t like the net and shareholders with unreasonable expectations!”

A corollary – in a blog post that could desperately use some editing, an argument is made that the important part of a newspaper is not the news (a commodity) but the package and the curation, somewhat consistent with the Gavin Potter quote above.

2) Newspapers cost money to make and to buy. The website version costs a certain amount of money to make but scales much more cheaply, and is free to the consumer. Depending on the scale and margin of each branch, this will give very different results for any given newspaper.

3) Demographics. With TGI I can see that the median age of the most regular newspaper readers (top 2 quintiles) is about 17 years older than the median age of those that regularly visit newspaper websites. The rule of thumb is that who sees your ad has the strongest effect on how well it does (over and above the offer or creative itself). Still one would expect that better targetting leads to better results, and if anything the splitting up of the audience should make targetting easier and hence more profitable.

4) Visibility. Since people get web content for free, they have less invested in it, so are unlikely to read it as attentively (A study suggests people typically read 20% of the text on a web page). Online ads can be blocked, newspaper ads can sit around the house for some time, paper is still easier on the eye than screen, people are more likely to be multi-tasking online… and many other factors similar to this exist.

There are many other arguments and deeper points to be considered about the above, but I would want to be more sure of the data before claiming to have an answer. I may revisit this topic with a more detailed investigation at some point on my blog.