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Things December 2015: Star Wars Special

As you may recall from Things 43, I’m a bit of a Star Wars fan.

So in terms of Things I found interesting in December, there was really only one. If you hate Star Wars I’ve got one other Thing for you below, a bit more music, and then it’s wall-to-wall Space Opera. I’ll save spoilery stuff until the very end and give fair warning.

Meine Schmusedecke / Patchwork Pals

At the Edinburgh Film Festival in 2010 (which I wrote about in this Things special), one of my favourite short animations was Lebensader by Angela Steffen. Last year at the DOK Leipzig film festival I was pleased to recognise her hand in a series of very short children’s animations about the adventures of some animals on a patchwork quilt.

There is an English dub, but I most enjoy the original German – I don’t know the language, but that’s what I like about it: the context and certain similar-sounding words make it a lot of fun to guess what’s going on. It’s about 3 minutes, and you should at least stick with it until the fox shows up:

Things Updates: Music and Dialogue

In Things November 2015 I quoted Dennett’s recommended method of dialogue, which involved carefully identifying areas of agreement, disagreement, and accurately re-stating your opponents position before attempting to debate it. Tarim wonders if this is inspired by “Buberian Dialogue” (pdf link):

The emergence technique proposed herein is sometimes called “Buberian dialogue.” The technique calls for two discussants, a moderator and an audience. The discussants each say their initial piece. It is the role of the audience to listen for what the two discussants have said or implied which might be in common. The audience is called upon to inform the discussants of these commonalities (which the moderator captures on a white board) and then for the discussion to turn to the revealed items. This occurs through three or more rounds. The aim is for a transformational experience. There is no effort to reach consensus or conclusion. Rather, the goal is for a transformation to take place in how the discussants view each other in the context of the debate. If a more human based respect emerges, the technique is successful.

Just imagine a political debate taking place through this form!

Tarim also adds his nominations for notable musical reworks (which began in Things with covers, reworking in general, and other examples from Things readers), while noting that unfortunately most of his favourite covers are those he heard live:


Frank Zappa’s takes on Bolero and Stairway to Heaven:

And finally Far-Cue, a “3 piece punk band who do notable versions of: Mike Batt’s Remember You’re a Womble, Motorhead’s Ace of Spaces and Bach’s Toccata and Fugue.” Youtube videos exist, but “they just don’t capture the essence of Far-Cue” – which I can well imagine!

So what is this ‘Star Wars’ thing anyway

I grew up with Star Wars, and it’s now so much part of the cultural furniture that it’s quite hard to see what it really is.

Strip away what you already know, and think about how odd it is to launch a franchise with ‘Episode IV’. So odd that Fox didn’t allow it, and it was just ‘Star Wars’ until George was allowed to change it for the 1981 re-release (and of course he’s continued to change the films whenever he has the chance). This is just the most telling sign of what Lucas was trying to do: recreate the adventure-serial movies he enjoyed in his youth, in which you would usually be encountering a random episode and hearing talk about back-story you knew nothing about – “You fought in the Clone Wars?!” The other biggest clue is that he had first tried to get the rights to make a Flash Gordon movie, and being unable to get them, decided to just make his own thrilling space adventure instead. (As if annoyed how many people don’t realise this, Lucas mentions it repeatedly in all of the commentaries on the most recent DVD/Blu-ray release!)

The best modern analogue for what Lucas was doing is probably Robert Rodriguez’ Planet Terror, in which Rodriguez tries to make an exploitation B-movie as good as he always wished they were.

This is all very reasonable; the really weird part is how ridiculously successful it was. Here’s the US box office of the top 10 grossing movies in the 5 years running to 1977:

In 1975 Jaws was an outlier, a freakish break-out hit… and then Star Wars almost doubled Jaws’ US domestic takings. Worldwide, across all re-releases and adjusted for inflation, ‘Star Wars’ (aka Episode IV or A New Hope) is second only to Gone With the Wind, which came out in 1939, when 45% of the US population went to the cinema weekly, as opposed to 1977 when that figure was down to 10% (pdf source). Incredible.

I personally think three main factors helped Star Wars achieve this excessive success.

Generational Nostalgia

It seems for various reasons that people have their greatest ability to create influential cultural works between the ages of 30-40. That age group also commands a large amount of the money going to entertainment: those without children are at a peak ratio of earnings to needs, those with children will spend to entertain the whole family. This means entertainment that resonates with the 30-40 year-old generation can prove disproportionately popular, and nostalgia for their youth is a good approach. (When you enter this age group yourself, the first sign is that shops start playing the pop music of your youth).

Back to the Future  went back from 1985 to 1955; Hairspray, The Wonder Years, Grease, Happy Days, and perhaps most nakedly That ‘70s Show all did a similar nostalgic leap. So in 1977 an audience existed that, like George Lucas, was nostalgic for the adventure serials.

This is also why we see favourite movies of the 80’s coming back 25-35 years later with sequels or remakes: Alien, Terminator, Robocop, Total Recall, Ghostbusters, Rocky, and Indiana Jones to name a few of the biggest.

Hairspray actually benefitted from the effect twice (set in 1962, made in 1988, remade in 2002). Star Wars has arguably benefitted three times: the initial adventure-serial throwback, and then the prequel trilogy and (just about) sequel trilogy each resonating with the generation that grew up with the previous Star Wars movies.

The Hero’s Journey

Aka the Monomyth, this is a story structure George Lucas studied and then consciously followed with Star Wars, and is one of the most popular story types that exist. Whatever else is going on, with this at the core you have a very strong narrative hook.


Episode IV’s script is weak: “This bucket of bolts is never going to get us past that blockade”, “Boy, it’s a good thing you have these compartments!” The pacing is also weird – at age 7 a friend and I were playing with our Star Wars toys when we realised we could watch the movie on VHS; after about 20 minutes we got bored and went back to the toys.

But apart from that (!), much of the execution is really incredible for the time. For one thing, Lucas founded a special effects company and a sound company that were each so successful they remain leaders in their fields even today. Relatedly, I suspect Ben Burtt’s sound design in particular elevated the film dramatically above other genre fare of the day (lightsabers, Vader’s breathing, blaster bolts, alien languages, background hum on ships… hundreds of convincing, world-building sounds in a single film).

How do you follow the most successful film in a generation?

Lucas found directing Star Wars incredibly stressful. With so much success, the world’s expectations would make directing a sequel even worse. I also suspect he knew a sequel would be held to a higher standard, and this adventure-serial schtick was going to wear thin. The one thing he had going for him was that the arc of the Hero’s Journey had plenty of life left. So he brought in a different director, got some pretty good script-writers, and took a back seat.

After seeing Star Wars films frequently throughout my life, it was only after a 5-year hiatus that I could re-watch them somewhat afresh as an adult, and realised that The Empire Strikes Back really is a step up in quality. Return of the Jedi then concluded the Hero’s Journey beautifully and assured Star Wars a long-lasting place in the minds of a generation.

In light of all the above, the seemingly weird prequels make a lot more sense. With financial security behind him, Lucas was able to get back to doing what he really wanted: adventure serial movies, complete with cheesy lines, melodrama and slightly wooden acting. I think the prequel trilogy is just the kind of movie Lucas wanted to make all along, and he actually got better at achieving that rather than worse.

I suspect the greatest problem for the prequels was that they’re not doing the ever-popular Hero’s Journey, but rather some sort of rise-and-fall tragedy, which the nuance-free adventure serial form is terrible at supporting.

The Force Awakens (no spoilers yet)

Which brings us to The Force Awakens. Back in 2005, after queuing for 16 hours, I got a ticket for the first 6-film Star Wars marathon and world premiere of Episode III: Revenge of the Sith at Leicester Square (showing the Original Trilogy and then the Prequel Trilogy, in order to save the newest addition until last).

At the end, George Lucas came over from the more star-studded premiere that had taken place in the nearby Odeon, and addressed the crowd. He was quickly drowned out by a chant that spontaneously arose from the fans: “We want nine! We want nine!”

Lucas calmed the crowd, and answered the request with these words I can still hear now:

“Star Wars is the story of Anakin Skywalker. It begins when he’s 9… it ends when he’s dead… there is no more story.”

(The BBC reporter recorded slightly different wording).

[Update – I rediscovered the recording I made of that intro! Perhaps unsurprisingly, the BBC reporter’s wording was closer than my memory – T.M. 16th April 2017]

As we now know, Disney thought there was at least $4bn more story, and they’re set on proving it, with new Star Wars episodes and spin-off films planned for every year from 2015 – 2020.

With all that history and no more Hero’s Journey story arc, how could Disney possibly satisfy the expectations of three generations of fans?

Well, that looks quite plausible. I particularly enjoyed the way a seemingly new and haunting piano progression evolves into a familiar theme – Han and Leia’s love theme in fact, which is a particularly apt choice following the end of Return of the Jedi.

At the time of writing, The Force Awakens has set the record for (unadjusted) US Domestic box office, and more impressively is at number 15 in the worldwide inflation-adjusted box office, putting it ahead of The Phantom Menace, Return of the Jedi, and just about on track to overtake The Empire Strikes Back, which would make it the most successful Star Wars film since 1977.

So that seems to be working.

I would say The Force Awakens has three major elements which could be ‘spoiled’, so is well worth trying to see with as little knowledge as possible. If you haven’t seen it yet, you should really do so before reading the rest.

Here’s a video to make it less tempting to read on:

The Force Awakens: True Successor or big-budget Fan Fiction? (SPOILERS!)

Over the first half an hour of the film I alternated between feeling that scenes, characters and designs were either not Star Wars enough, or just too much like old Star Wars. I finally realised I was holding the movie to an impossible standard, and substantially enjoyed the rest of it.

But by the end, it was undeniable: The Force Awakens looks a lot like a remake of 1977’s A New Hope. To try to make that assessment more fairly, I picked the most important 10 story elements from each and put them side-by-side:

Episode IV: A New Hope Episode VII: The Force Awakens
Opening arc of The Hero’s Journey Opening arc of The Hero’s Journey
Scrappy underdogs vs. Fascist Military Scrappy underdogs vs. Fascist Military
Destroy planet-scale superweapon Destroy planet-scale superweapon
Death of the mentor Death of the mentor
Protagonist triumphs through skill and faith Protagonist triumphs through skill and faith
Males free female from captivity Males free female from captivity (subverted)
MacGuffin in a droid: superweapon plans MacGuffin in a droid: location of old hero
Escape from a death trap Male frees male from captivity
Triumphant return of a protagonist Bad guy turns good
Conclude with award ceremony Conclude with ambiguous meeting with old hero

So that’s 50% alike, 20% related, 30% new.

I can’t help wondering if this was actually the master plan: take the structure of the most successful of the series, add a scriptwriter of the most well-regarded, have the original cast pass the baton to the new, and laugh all the way to the bank. It seems to have worked.

In terms of style, I was very pleased to find it kept my favourite things from all of the Star Wars films: the adventure-serial (more mysterious back-story), family melodrama, and a script much more like Empire than any of the others (which makes sense, given Lawrence Kasdan’s involvement).

Let’s Get Nerdy (MORE SPOILERS)

Finally, as a Star Wars fan I can’t leave off without addressing some of the questions people tend to ask immediately after seeing the film.

How did Kylo Ren get beaten by amateurs?

The movie goes to extraordinary lengths to show Chewbacca’s bowcaster as some kind of devastating superweapon. Kylo Ren then gets shot with it, and the movie emphases his heavy bleeding and difficulty with the wound. Meanwhile it’s fair to assume Finn has some training in melee combat, and so is able to slightly injure Kylo’s sword-arm before being beaten. This means when Rey enters the fight, she’s fresh, and has been demonstrated capable in melee combat, while Kylo has two serious injuries!

How can Rey be so good with the Force so quickly?

I wondered this while watching the film, but it’s worth benchmarking. Anakin could drive pod-racers at inhuman speed at age 9, and demonstrated some sort of telepathy / far-seeing (in Yoda’s simple test) with no training. Luke deflects three blaster bolts while blindfold on his second try, uses the force to make a missile shot that was ‘impossible, even for a computer’, and later extracts a lightsaber from ice, again with no formal training.

By contrast, Rey does a Jedi mind trick on her third go, and beats Kylo Ren in a lightsaber summoning contest; in the latter case we again have his injuries to consider, and she was also pulling in the same direction as him.

Why did R2 take so long to wake up?

This requires some mumbo jumbo about R2 taking a while to process the information of BB-8 returning with the map piece and to come out of hibernation. The real reason is if he woke up immediately, it would create a difficult story-fork between fighting Starkiller Base and seeking out Luke.

Where are these planets relative to one another in the galaxy?

It’s unclear how Starkiller Base can really be “aimed” at another solar system, but apparently it can. We’re told it can somehow shoot through hyperspace, hence the ability to hit something light-years away. Dramatically less justifiable is that in a completely separate solar system, it’s possible to look in the sky and see the beam traverse and hit several planets in real time.

The only ‘explanation’ is that Star Wars is fantasy, not science fiction: planets are simply locations that are ‘far apart’, hence their uniform environment and the fact that everything that takes place on a planet seems to happen in one very small part of it. The worst offender in the original trilogy was arguably Empire, in which the Millennium Falcon apparently travels between two solar systems without a hyperdrive in a matter of weeks.

Who is Rey?

Child of Solo and Leia? Seems very weird they did not mention her when discussing their past troubles in The Force Awakens.

Grandchild of Kenobi? Seems very weird given that in Empire it is Kenobi’s ghost who says “That boy is our last hope” and Yoda who says “No… there is another”. Unless Yoda followed up with “Oh, and didn’t you also have a kid at some point, how are they getting on?”

Child of Skywalker? It seems insane he would abandon her with no training, and the whole bit with Kylo turning to the dark side and disrupting things comes much later.

In terms of trying to second-guess the series, I think it’s worth remembering that A New Hope set up Empire’s surprise-parentage twist by explicitly lying about it! As reliable old Ben told Luke, “A young Jedi named Darth Vader […] betrayed and murdered your father.”

So, and as usual: trust no one.

- 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 131: Frozen is objectively great, Internet decay and hamsters, Shower danger

Data-based movie recommendation
In 2010, with the release of Disney’s The Princess and the Frog, I looked back at the historic trends to try to understand where Disney went wrong in the 00’s. The Princess and the Frog (and Bolt before it) were successful in terms of IMDB and Rotten Tomatoes ratings, but less so in terms of revenue.

I concluded that Disney had to somehow maintain this level of quality in order to build back their reputation. With Tangled, Wreck-it-Ralph, and most recently Frozen, that’s exactly what they’ve done. In fact, since 2011, they’ve consistently outperformed Pixar (despite owning them):

Frozen currently enjoys the highest IMDB rating Disney have received since The Lion King, although due to self-selection it will be somewhat overstated in these initial weeks after its release.

On a more personal note, I’ve now seen Frozen twice, and highly recommend it – do be advised that it is a full-on musical, but co-composed by one of the people behind The Book of Mormon, so there’s a lot to enjoy even if that wouldn’t usually be your cup of tea. It’s also highly notable for having two female leads with real agency (I’m looking at you, Brave, with your arbitrary plot-advancing Will O’ the Wisps).

Video –Automated Automata Architecture
Continuing the Disney-is-actually-pretty-good-now theme, here Disney research demonstrate how they can generate the gearing required to closely recreate an arbitrary cyclical movement, then 3D-print the result to make the automaton. I particularly like the cyber tiger at 3’30”:

(via The Kid Should See This)

Tumblr – Video games with modified objectives
No wrong way to play” collects examples of people playing video games in ways not intended by the designers. I approve of this.

Tim Link – Learning to Cheat, part 3
Two years ago I surprised myself by betraying someone pretty meanly in a public game. I began a series of blog posts post-rationalising the whole thing within a game-design framework, and after a guilty two-year gap I finally posted my full confession and/or excuse.

Internet decay
If you’ve ever navigated early entries of Things on the blog, you might have seen some dead links, and some links which went dead and got fixed, and some which died again, as I periodically go back and attempt to fight digital entropy.

Based on this insignificant sample, it seems like the half-life for links on the internet is 5-10 years, and considerably less for YouTube videos. This is pretty distressing as laziness/convenience drives us to rely on the internet for files we’re interested in – after all, your options are essentially a) saving a lolcat in downloads>pictures>cats, renaming the file so you can easily find it, and maintaining off-site backups of your data to hedge against hardware failure, or b) just image search “I have a cat and I’m not afraid to use it” from any device, which is a lot more appealing. (Naturally I still choose option a).

There’s a few good links on the subject here, including the compelling quote:

“People are coming to the realization that if nobody saves the Internet, their work will just be gone.” – Alexis Rossi, Internet Archive

Hamster fighting machine / response
Here’s an example of why it’s important to hold onto things on the internet. In 2005, Jarred Purrington made the Hamster Fighting Machine comic/poster (which you can see here or here but not on the original link because it’s dead)

In 2010, Dale Beran (writer of previously-Thinged webcomic/cogent nightmare “A lesson is learned but the damage is irreversible”) posted a lovely response.

Answer – 100 Chalices
Last time I asked if you should choose a chalice with 50/50 odds of being poisoned over one random chalice out of 100 which 100 fiends have each independently and randomly poisoned one of.

Restated, this is asking if you would prefer one-hundred 1-in-100 chances of death vs a single ½ chance. Richard correctly reasoned that the average amount of poison-per-chalice is double in the 100-chalice room, and some degree of bunching in the distribution (i.e. some chalices getting poisoned multiple times) didn’t seem likely to offset it, so the 50/50 chance is probably the best bet.

For any of you not familiar with the probability behind this sort of thing, here’s a quick summary. In the 100-chalice case, calculating all the ways a chalice could get poisoned is very difficult, but calculating the probability of it never getting poisoned is much easier as there’s only one way that can happen. The odds of avoiding poison any one time are 99/100, and this has to be repeated 100 times. So:

Odds of avoiding poisoning = 99/100 x 99/100 x … x 99/100 = (99/100)^100 = 37%. Clearly not as good as the 50% chance in the two-chalice room.

As a post-script, if you’re interested, the expected ‘bunching’ of poisonings would look a bit like this:

This is also a very important concept when evaluating risks in your own life for things that you repeat. For example, I noticed that I tended to step out of the shower in a needlessly risky way, with a risk of slipping (and getting seriously hurt) of perhaps 1-in-a-thousand. That seems tolerable, until you consider that if I showered once a day for 2 years, my odds of avoiding such a fate would be (999/1000)^730 = 48%, in other words I’d be more likely to have at least one such accident than not! So, watch out for that.

Answer – Kickstarter videos
I’ve spoken to a few people about the fact that Kickstarter videos always make me feel less motivated to put my money in. The underlying reason seems to be that a Kickstarter page typically does a great job of selling the product/reward, but the video often ends up being more about selling the people behind it (as being worthy, or in need of your money). Before the video I don’t even think about that; after the video, that’s just another reason to say no.

-Transmission finally ends

Things 128: No spoilers, Beethoven played correctly, automation vs humans

Puzzle – Do Spoilers Matter?
Research looking into the enjoyment of short stories found that reading a ‘spoiler’ beforehand tended to increase enjoyment. That seems quite possible, but the strangest part is that it holds even for mystery or ironic-twist stories. They even have a chart with error bars, which looks pretty compelling (click for big):

So, you’ll generally enjoy all stories you read (or presumably consume in any medium) more if you read about the ending first.

The question, then: how can you justify not doing this?

Video – Omlette
Here’s a really lovely short (2’30”) animation about a dog and an omlette. If you’re having a hard day, I particularly recommend it.

Audio – Beethoven wants you to play faster
When Beethoven eventually got his hands on a metronome, he marked up symphonies with tempos that nobody can quite believe he really meant, and which are pretty much entirely disregarded. This excellent Radiolab podcast investigates. (The forced conversational ‘style’ gets a little irritating, but the demonstration at the end is fantastic).

Links – Race Against The Machine
Our old friend the Invisible Hand guides us to make work more efficient with technology: robots replace humans on production lines, computer work becomes automated, cars and vacuum cleaners operate themselves, and productivity increases. Brilliant.

From the Luddites on, people have been fighting this change to defend their old jobs, but with hindsight we can say they were mistaken, as prosperity has increased, every time, and will continue to do so.

Or will it?!

Despite the apparent historic benefits, it’s still hard to imagine this trend continuing indefinitely and remaining benevolent.

Now, one can imagine some sort of desirable end point, in which (say) solar power becomes incredibly cheap:

… and robots / algorithms are able to do everything humans don’t want to do, and everything is wonderful and everyone is happy.

Of course, quite how you would run such a society isn’t entirely clear, and as Voltaire points out, work isn’t only about earning money:

Work spares us from three evils: boredom, vice, and need

But of more concern right now is how we organise society as we transition towards that end-point. In particular, it seems reasonable to suggest that automation of jobs will tend to increase inequality, as (in a simplistic model), the few that own the robots / server farms reap all the rewards of that automated labour while everyone else loses their jobs.

In case you need reminding, inequality is bad for almost everyone. By the way, a concise point on this topic made by Nick Hanauer in 2011:

If the average American family still got the same share of income they earned in 1980, they would have an astounding $13,000 more in their pockets a year. It’s worth pausing to consider what our economy would be like today if middle-class consumers had that additional income to spend.

Here’s a fun sequence of slides putting the current economic situation (in the US) in 50 years of context (brought together by Business Insider):

Corporate profits as a % of GDP at all time high:

% of Americans with jobs is significantly down:

(Something interesting is happening here, because the more common measure of “unemployment rate” doesn’t look as bad)

Wages as a % of GDP at an all-time low:

(Side-note: these were extracted from a longer chart-based argument to do with wages and debt, which is quite interesting but somewhat disingenuously suggests that just “looking at the data” is some non-political process that can reveal answers, and doesn’t consider the fact that over the same time period the % of retired persons in the US increased from 8% to 13% and could reach 20% in the next 30 years. Still worth a look, though.)

Now, there are many other drivers of inequality (including the feedback loop of lobbying, which The Onion satirises perfectly), and while automation may not have been the biggest contributor so far, it’s worrying that we’re not in a good position just as automation is starting to look like a credible threat to prosperity.

There’s a book on this which characterises the problem in its title: “Race Against the Machine“. I haven’t read it, but apparently the authors make an interesting case and then fail to offer any realistic solutions. The absence of solutions and the seemingly inevitable progress along this line is why I consider this one of the major problems we need to solve (after climate change).

Finally, a really important sci-fi story on this topic: Manna by Marshall Brain, which demonstrates a method by which automation can creep into jobs without replacing them entirely, but the consequences are just as dire. Chapter 1 gives you the gist, but it’s worth continuing to see how he plays out the trend. (At the end he appears to suggest a solution, and unfortunately it appears to be much less realistic than the problem).

-Transmission finally ends