Tag Archives: comic

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 September 2015: The Sea, Song Covers, Weather Reporting, Alphabear

Comic – The Deep Ones

A few thematically related thoughts have been freaking me out quietly but insistently for many years: the idea that, when in the sea, you are in the same body of water as sharks and giant squid; the imagined sensation of floating somewhere in the sea and sensing something vast swimming just beneath your feet; the idea that the sea has not been thoroughly explored and that monsters may truly lurk in deep trenches. This short comic, “The Deep Ones” by Julia Gfrörer explores these ideas quite poetically and insightfully.



Music – Covers that that Trump Originals

Logistics note: reading through old editions of Things, about 50% of all YouTube videos I link to disappear after a couple of years. So I’m now including a link to a generic YouTube search that should work even if the one I chose has gone away.

While fully recognising that everything is subjective, especially music,  I hold that these covers are particularly notable.

Jose Gonzalez does “Hand On Your Heart”, sounds like he means it:
(In case of removed video, try this search)


In case you need reminding, here’s Kylie with the original:
(In case of removed video, try this search)


Similarly, Iron & Wine sings ‘Love Vigilantes’, a lovely and quite moving ballad about returning to family from war:
(In case of removed video, try this search)


That was New Order’s idea originally, but I’m just not as convinced by their version:
(In case of removed video, try this search)


Just in case it looks like I’m only into gentle acoustic covers, here’s something going the other way!

In Scott Pilgrim vs The World (a movie I will tell anyone that will listen is underrated right after I’ve tried to convince them to appreciate Speed Racer), Scott (Michael Cera) tries to impress Ramona (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) with a 30 second song he wrote about her:
(In case of removed video, try this search)

She tells him she can’t wait to hear it when it’s finished. That’s the joke.

The things is, this song is actually by Beck, which explains why it’s a surprisingly assured and satisfying chord progression – Beck contributed most of the original songs for the film. I like to imagine Beck saw this bit and thought “You know what, I will finish it” and came out with this:
(In case of removed video, try this search)


Weather-related newspaper headlines

(via Iain) I had wondered if there was a corollary to Betteridge’s law of headlines relating to the weather. I hadn’t noticed that the Daily Express was particularly fond of weather-related headlines, but quite brilliantly Scott Bryan compared a year of headlines against what actually transpired back in 2012. The post is no longer up but you can find it on the internet archive.


Libraries caught up with the future when I wasn’t looking

Back when people were getting excited about the advent of ebooks and digital audio books, I remember a lot of intense discussion about what this might mean for libraries.

Turns out that all the pieces came together, and you can now digitally borrow these things from your local library directly from your device, for free. (Perhaps more accurately, you’ve already paid for it with your taxes). I’ve been using the Overdrive app to do it and it’s really quite brilliant.

Two caveats. First, you very reasonably do have to join your local library in the first place to get an ID and PIN. Second, don’t be tempted to create an Overdrive account using Facebook, because if you later want to borrow an eBook and put it on a device that doesn’t run Overdrive, you’ll need to go through some icky business with ‘Adobe Digital Editions’ (because DRM), and that doesn’t work if you used Facebook.

On the topic of DRM, I’m still convinced it’s a terrible idea for digital purchases, but I think it’s pretty much essential to make this whole borrowing idea work, so I’m happy to accept it there.


Mobile games to try

Free-to-play mobile games are trying all sorts of strategies these days to find a business model that works (because straight paid on mobile sadly doesn’t). One model is to create a game that never really ends, is completely enjoyable without spending anything, and in which spending gains you a small advantage of some sort. These games don’t make a huge amount of money for the people that make them, and the flip side of that is that they can give you a lot of fun for very little money.

Alphabear is one such game. It’s a really lovely word-puzzle game with some nice strategy. There’s an ‘energy’ mechanic (you can only play a certain amount and need to wait for your ‘energy’ to come back), but you can buy ‘infinite honey’ which removes the energy thing entirely. So if you enjoy the game, you should definitely do that.

Breakneck is another, and takes the form of a twitchy high-speed sci-fi sort of endless runner, reminiscent of Wipeout. If your device is up to it, it’s a very polished experience at a ridiculously low price. (iOS only – sorry)

- Transmission ends

Things 129: Kids Special (Strange Hill High, Octonauts, The Phoenix)

People tend to assume children’s entertainment isn’t as good as it was when they were young, probably due to a three-pronged attack of rose-tinted nostalgia, the best shows being renewed (Sesame Street) or repeated (Bagpuss) so giving each new generation a sense of ownership over them, and poor curation for adults out of the current crop.

Recognising that this is a highly subjective enterprise, I’m going to pick out a few good examples of current kids fare in attempt to at least fix the latter. There’s even a kid-entertainment-based puzzle at the end.

TV Series with Puppets: Strange Hill High
I occasionally take a look at current children’s TV to see what sort of animation techniques are being used, and Strange Hill High caught my attention through its fascinating combination of designer-vinyl-toy-style puppets combined with CG mouth animation.

The premise is entirely encoded in the name so I won’t bother to elaborate on that. Most importantly, it actually makes me laugh a few times per episode, which can’t be said of many other TV series. To be fair, 90% of it is fairly standard kids ‘comedy’, but it’s sufficiently fast paced that I don’t mind sitting through that to get to the other 10%.

If you seek reassurance from known quantities, it also features the voice of Richard Ayoade (The IT Crowd), and the head of the writing team is Josh Weinstein (The Simpsons).

It’s on iPlayer right now (I recommend starting with 99 cool things to do with a time machine), and you can start to get a bit of a flavour (though not really enough) from the opening few minutes:

Picture Books: Octonauts
Again, I first engaged with this franchise through the graphical design: I was impressed by the stylishness of their bath toys. It turns out there’s a whole CG animated series, which is quite good (mostly due to the use of regional accents), but it all started with a series of charmingly whimsical picture books. Here’s a few snippets to give you an idea:

Decoding the language of a sad fish:

Pictures that glow in the dark (from this book), which it turns out fascinate me just as much as when I was a kid:

Weekly comic: The Phoenix
Now I look back on it, more than anything The Beano looks like a primer on culture, mapping out the tropes and stereotypes of an idealised sort of pre-war age (vicars having tea, go-carts, hi-jinks, the threat of The Slipper), equipping the child with the reference points needed to navigate modern entertainment, while keeping said child entertained with a never-ending stream of speech bubbles that all end in exclamation marks (I only noticed this years later, and haven’t been able to read more than a few pages at once since).

The Phoenix is a modern kids comic that’s nothing like that. For one thing, it features work by James Turner, who I’ve featured in Things before (with this mind-bending 9-panel comic).

It’s also got a bunch of other surprisingly good stuff. Bunny vs Monkey by Jamie Smart features high-quality hijinks like this and ever so often will just go incredibly dark, like this:

For being simultaneously educational and entertaining, I’ve never seen better than Corpse Talk by Adam Murphy, in which he interviews the reanimated corpses of the “dead famous”, and doesn’t really sugar-coat things that much:

There’s wonderful art by Lorenzo in Long Gone Don:

Finally, ‘Professor Panels’ by Neill Cameron teaches kids to make their own comics, sometimes delightfully deconstructing the form, such as the episode in which a mecha-comic-creating-monkey starts to misfire when a banana is added to its workings:

If you’re interested, do check out their website, which has a free digital issue, a link to the iPad app, a starter pack you could buy, and a bunch of other good stuff.

Video: Tune-Yards My Country
I like this music, and the video is pretty good too. Be sure to stick around for the funky syncopated brass solo around 2’40”.

Puzzle: The Perfect Power-up Purchase Path
The LEGO console games are aimed at children, but provide some solid co-op entertainment for adults too, especially if you derive pleasure from smashing things and collecting coins – or in the LEGO-themed parlance of the game, ‘studs’.

In many (all?) of them, studs collected in the course of play can be used to purchase various upgrades. One such upgrade is the ‘x2′, which once bought, doubles the value of all the studs you subsequently collect – so a level where you might collect 100,000 studs will instead net you 200,000. There are other similar upgrades, like the ‘x4′, which multiplies by 4 – and they apply cumulatively, so if you have both x2 and x4, you get an 8 times multiplier, so that level would now net you 800,000 studs.

Naturally, the more powerful multipliers are more expensive to buy… but having a multiplier will help you save up for the others more quickly. Here’s a price list:

  • x2 = 1 million studs
  • x4 = 2m
  • x6 = 3m
  • x8 = 4m
  • x10 = 5m

So, the question naturally arises: if you want to eventually purchase all 5 of these multpliers, what order should you buy them in? (In case you were wondering, yes, they really do keep accumulating, so when you have them all you have a 2 x 4 x 6 x 8 x 10 = 3,840-times multiplier).

For the more mathematically inclined: what is the generic strategy for any multiplier series f and pricing series g? For the more game-design inclined: if you really wanted to encourage children to do some maths, how would you design the pricing for these multipliers? Alternatively, if you wanted to make the game as fun as possible, what multipliers and prices would you set?

Answer: Spoilers Sometimes Matter
Last time I asked if we could really believe research demonstrating that spoilers always improve enjoyment. The consensus seems pretty clear – even though ‘mystery’ and ‘twist ending’ stories were included in the research, it nonetheless seems very likely that there exist a few counter-example stories in which experiencing them unspoiled adds a tremendous amount to the experience. Since one can’t tell reliably tell which these are in advance, it seems wiser to err on the side of caution, and continue to avoid spoilers.

-Transmission Finally Ends

Things 118: Cindy & Biscuit, Tron Dance, Into The Abyss

Cindy and Biscuit is a comic by Dan White which consists of various short episodes, and the best way to communicate what sort of thing they’re about is probably just to show you this representative one-pager:

Cindy is of a character-type I find particularly inspiring: defiantly unbowed by the insanity the world presents her with, and generally willing and able to tackle that insanity head-on. You can read Cindy & Biscuit in The Snowman here, or just enjoy my favourite panel below, or go ahead and order the comic directly, or pick up Vol. 2 from Gosh! like I did. (And if you’re on the fence on whether or not to spring for it, read this much more detailed review).

This is a fantastic use of technology in combination with dance. It’s quite a slow build, so if you’re impatient just make sure you at least catch 1’12” to 2’37”.

Film / TV
Werner Herzog has been making documentaries in one form or another since 1969. I’ve only seen two of his more recent ones (Cave of Forgotten Dreams and most recently Into The Abyss), but the impression I’m forming is that these decades of experience must be the reason he’s able to elicit such insightful responses in interviews seemingly without effort and even while apparently willfully derailing the conversation along frivolous tangents.

The most striking example I’ve heard so far, which you can hear (but unfortunately not see) at the 2’34” mark in this Kermode & Mayo review of Into The Abyss, occurs when the death row pastor happens to mention seeing squirrels (and other animals) while unwinding at the golf course. This prompts Herzog to request “Please describe an encounter with a squirrel”, to which the pastor responds with an initially jovial anecdote that quite suddenly leads straight to the heart of his feelings about his role in executions.

You can watch the trailer for the film, but it doesn’t really do it justice:

There’s also a series of three 45-minute TV episodes (still viewable on 4oD at the time of writing) which I haven’t yet seen but will presumably be similarly insightful and gut-wrenching.

Such an elegant concept: Eirik Solheim extracted sequential vertical slices of  3,888 photos he took out of his window over the course of 2010, and composited them to produce one year in one image:

(You may recall a similar idea applied to video that I posted a short while ago, A History of the Sky).