Things June 2022: Lyric repetition, puzzle design, Outer Wilds

What just happened?

You may have noticed that Things posts/emails slowed in frequency over the years (from weekly to monthly to sporadic) and more recently had effectively stopped!

There’s a whole aspect of this that I plan to unpack later involving my levels of personal creativity and motivation. I posted in August 2021 that I would try to work around this by trying to focus on a post about a single Thing each time. Well, this has started to work, and I’m jumping off from that to a more traditional round up of things!

Beginnings and Endings in public performances (link)

In this post I examined the ways that different cultural forms (movies, gigs, puppet shows etc) signal to an audience the start and end of a performance, and why this is important.

While writing it, I realised that online talks/presentations, which have become much more prevalent during the pandemic, had not reached a good consensus on these difficult problems, and I set out my own list of suggestions of how to start and end them. Honestly, I’m not that satisfied with these and if anyone has any better suggestions I’d love to hear them. Read the whole thing here.

Why I love the ‘Up All Night’ music video (link)

Effectively a dramatically expanded paragraph from a normal issue of things (this one), I explained in some detail what I think is so good about this music video:

This fascinating short film seems weirdly underdiscussed on the internet, so again I’d be very happy to hear anyone else’s thoughts on it! Mine are here.

Repetition for emphasis in lyrics

When a particular word or phrase is sung repeatedly in a song, the meaning changes slightly: it starts to feel like something the singer really really desires.

This was my favourite feature of Frozen 2 (2019)‘s song “Into The Unknown”

Elsa hears a siren-like voice, and in the first verse sings about how she plans to ignore it, culminating in this:

I’ve had my adventure, I don’t need something new
I’m afraid of what I’m risking if I follow you…
Into the unknown
Into the unknown
Into the unknown

‘Into the Unknown’, music and lyrics by Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez

You can read it between the lines, but the repetition of ‘Into the unknown’ and the tone in which it is sung tell us that, deep down, Elsa really does want to follow the voice. This is then validated in the second verse which instead concludes

Don’t you know there’s a part of me that longs to go
Into the unknown?
Into the unknown
Into the unknown!

This device is really nicely exploited in The LEGO Movie 2 (2019) (another animated sequel from 2019, but which came out before Frozen 2). The protagonists encounter Queen Watevra Wa’Nabi who then goes into a musical number to explain that she is not evil, which brilliantly plays out exactly as you would hope from that premise:

Here the repetition is partly from the backing singers (denoted in brackets):

And if you make eye contact with me
I totally won’t have you executed immediately
‘Cause that’d be evil (evil)
Evil (evil)
Evil… and that’s so not me.

‘Not Evil’ by Jon Lajoie

The repetition of ‘evil’ reinforces the unconvincing negatives, giving the impression that she is, in fact, actually evil.

So anyway, all of this is an elaborate build-up to explain a problem I have with ‘Roxanne’ by The Police.

Sting sings earnestly about how much he loves Roxanne, a sex worker, and how he wants her to stop doing that and just be with him. It’s a little odd as there’s nothing in the song indicating that he would support her or that she could do really anything other than just belong to him, but perhaps that’s supposed to be implied.

Specifically he asks her to change by saying “You don’t have to put on the red light”, which is fine and a reasonably delicate turn of phrase. Where it gets weird is in the conclusion of the chorus, and especially the outro. Again denoting backing singers in brackets, this reads as follows:

(Roxanne) You don’t have to put on the red light
(Roxanne) Put on the red light
(Roxanne) Put on the red light
(Roxanne) Put on the red light
(Roxanne) Put on the red light
(Roxanne) Put on the red light
(Roxanne) Put on the red light
(Roxanne) Put on the red light
(Roxanne) Put on the red light
(Roxanne) Put on the red light
(Roxanne) You don’t have to put on the red light
(Roxanne) Put on the red light
(Roxanne) Put on the red light
(Roxanne) Put on the red light
(Roxanne) Put on the red light

‘Roxanne’ by Sting

So Sting sings two times that she doesn’t have to put on the red light, but then seemingly that she should put it on thirteen times, which for me always undermined what I assume was the intended sentiment.

Puzzle: Rice Cookers

Returning to the old tradition of puzzles in things: how do rice cookers work?

Now you can ask the internet for the answer to this, but I suggest this is worth figuring out on your own! If you’re not familiar with this excellent device, the key mystery is that you can add any amount of rice (up to some limit), then add 1.5x as much water, and switch the rice cooker on. You don’t have to tell it how much rice you are cooking, but it will cook it perfectly and then let you know when it’s ready. So how exactly does it know when the rice is done?

Puzzle Design

I know many things readers are not only interested in solving puzzles, but also setting them. I found Elyot Grant’s series of videos on the subject pretty fascinating, albeit a bit longer than they could have been (although this is the ‘extended’ version of his GDC talk).

I particularly appreciated some useful terminology he introduced me to for speaking about puzzles:

Fiero vs Eureka

Elyot likes the term ‘Eureka’ for the moment a core understanding of a puzzle kicks in, arguing this does better justice to it than the more prosaic term “aha moment”. In particular he calls it out as distinct from ‘Fiero’, which describes the warm feeling of accomplishment after you have achieved something difficult. Video games often end up falling back on creating Fiero; creating Eureka moments is harder to do but often more rewarding to experience in the end.


This refers to anything incorporated into a puzzle that isn’t essential to the design, but somehow makes it more attractive or pleasing than if it was the purest distillation of what is needed to provoke a Eureka moment. For example, a sliding block puzzle could be shaped like an animal that it already nearly resembles; or the words in a word puzzle could be thematically linked somehow. This all adds to the pleasing sense in which engaging with and solving a puzzle can feel like understanding a message from its creator.


Finally, ‘aporia’ is the term for when a puzzle seems to be impossible. Ideally, the setting and trust in the puzzle’s creator should be sufficient to convince you that there really is a solution, that this isn’t a mistake or a trick. This can make the sensation particularly fascinating: you know a solution exists, you’ve perhaps even proved it doesn’t, so you know there must be some gap in your logic – you just don’t know what it is. For me this happened repeatedly as I played Snakebird (Steam/iOS/Android; referenced in Things April 2017) and is one of the reasons I enjoyed it so much.

Part 1 of the video series is here, and the YouTube description links you to parts 2 and 3:

Media I Recommend

A long time has passed since the last general Things round-up, which means there have been more chances for me to encounter some really excellent things that I recommend to Things readers.

Video game: The Outer Wilds

Available on PC (Steam), Playstation, Xbox

More than most other media, video games often have the problem that they are not at all accessible or engaging for someone not familiar with the form. So even though this is the strongest I’ve wanted to recommend something for a very long time, you do need to be comfortable navigating 3D environments to enjoy this game.

The Outer Wilds is a sci-fi time-loop mystery puzzle-game set in a kind of toy solar-system. That sounds cute, but I need to expand on that: it’s a really solid sci-fi, with the best-realised time-loop I’ve ever seen, a fantastically crafted mystery with brilliant diegetic puzzles set in an excellently designed toy solar-system that is obsessed with piquing and rewarding your curiosity and may make you think differently about death.

Referencing the puzzle terminology above, while it has its moments of Fiero, The Outer Wilds is particularly notable for being built around Eureka moments, with pleasingly diegetic hints to help you figure them out.

This may provide further context:
– Best Game of 2000-2009 according to me: Portal
– Best Game of 2010-2019 according to me: The Outer Wilds

So to be very clear, I recommend playing this game in the strongest possible terms if any of that sounds even remotely appealing to you.

Here’s a few notes that may help with your decision to play/finish it:

  • It takes ~15-25 hours to play
  • Note this wild game is called ‘The Outer Wilds’, and should not be confused with ‘The Outer Worlds’, a game that unfortunately came out around the same time
  • I recommend setting aside an hour for your first session
  • To get a bit cryptic, there are a few things that you may find annoying about it, but almost all of those things have ways to make them less annoying!
  • I personally recommend buying the base edition and then buying the DLC if you want more, rather than diving straight in to the complete ‘archaeologist edition’
  • There are moments late on that may test your patience, especially if you don’t work out some of the ways to make things less annoying – I was personally so invested I didn’t mind these at all, but I can appreciate that your mileage may vary. Still, if you enjoy it half as much as I did it will be well worth your time.

TV Series: Russian Doll

Natasha Lyonne in Russian Doll

As it happens, Russian Doll also involves a time loop, but much more of a magical-realism one than the sci-fi of The Outer Wilds. Its most notable feature is Natasha Lyonne as the protagonist Nadia, who has an approach to life not often seen on screen: a woman who says ‘yes’ to most decisions, especially the inadvisable ones, and is remarkably driven and selfish – but still humane. This makes her a particularly excellent protagonist for the time loop situation she finds herself in and I was gripped by this series all the way to the end.

If this sounds appealing I recommend diving straight into it (it’s on Netflix), but if you need more convincing at the expense of slight spoiling, the trailer is here.

(There is now a second series in which she encounters a different magical-realist sci-fi situation, but I found her character a worse fit for it and I was not surprised and delighted in the same way. The first series can certainly stand alone.)

Film: Everything Everywhere All At Once

IMDb: 8.5/10. Rotten Tomatoes: 95%.

The above trailer looked very promising to me, and I sought out the very first screening I could; the amazing part is that I found the film entirely lives up to the trailer, even to the extent that each minute is almost exactly as intense. A mind-boggling experience that truly delivers on the idea of a multiverse (unlike other films I could mention), I found it so fascinating I saw it a second time at the cinema; I enjoyed it even more, and it has joined the ranks of my all-time favourite films.

At the time of writing you may even still be able to catch it in the cinema, which I strongly encourage you to do!

(If you’re interested, others on my ‘all-time favourites’ list include Speed Racer, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, Inception, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Synecdoche New York, and Lilo and Stitch)

Song: Dan Deacon – Change Your Life

It seems music is more personal than other art forms, and I feel as if the more a particular piece speaks to someone, the less likely it is to work for most other people. With that in mind, I don’t expect many to find Dan Deacon (referenced a few times in past Things) particularly appealing, but if you only try one of his songs, I recommend ‘Change Your Life’ which really captures the frenetic optimism he achieves, and which is what I find most appealing:

Enormous ever-evolving IP: Star Wars

Since I last wrote about it (in September 2018!), a lot has happened in Star Wars, and as you might expect I have a lot of opinions about it. But that will have to be an entire Things in its own right. So, you can look forward to that. Or not.

Transmission ends


Things 133: Overreacting, audio history of sampling, internet vs time, meta-meta-analysis

Comics – Overreacting

Jemma Salume has an excellent series of comics about overreacting to things (and also learning to cook, and dating). They’re compact and hyperbolic, which is how I like my comics, and also how I like my toy universe model geometries, hahaha.

Music – Raiding the 20th Century
This remains my favourite mix, and with the ten-year anniversary upon us I was surprised to realise I had never put it in Things.

In 2004, DJ Food (aka Strictly Kev) made a 40-minute mix for XFM chronicling the history of ‘cut-up’ (essentially sample-based) music which he called ‘Raiding the 20th Century’. Shortly afterwards he read Paul Morley’s book ‘Words and Music’ which did much the same thing and covered much of the same material. Paul Morley also coined the phrase ‘Raiding the 20th Century’ twenty years earlier. Taking note of this big flashing fate-arrow, they got together, recorded Paul reading key parts of the book, and created a new hour-long mix of the material.

The mp3 is available over on, the track listing is here, and you can go ahead and listen to it right here:

It’s about 20 minutes before the ‘history’ really starts, and while Morley’s commentary then explains and introduces many of the tracks and samples, many more are used without comment. Over the years, as I learn more about music history, more and more of them are making sense, which is very satisfying. As one of the samples used states: “every time you listen to this recording, something will happen.”

Links – Time and the Internet
As we build up an ever larger historical archive of material online, the date something was originally published becomes more important, and something we’ll need to become more aware of (assuming we avoid internet decay).

I like the approach of the BBC, which appears to maintain the CMS that articles originally appeared in (for example, this report from September 11th 2001, or the Mammal-of-the-month November 2002). That’s still not quite enough to avoid the confusion that may arise from incautious Googling for events that recur. Also, try to work out when this was written.

Anyway, if you would prefer a cogent discussion of the topic rather than a selection of semi-random BBC links, then I highly recommend Joanne McNeil’s piece on the subject here, in which she says things much more precisely than I have been, like this:

“Digital content appears with minimal visual language distinguishing yesterday from tomorrow and today. Now habits have emerged in which we communicate with the past and even mistake it for the present.”

(Also, see this Cat and Girl comic).

Video – Brett Domino
Looking through previous editions of Things, I was surprised to find I’d never featured Brett Domino, who does a range of silly-but-clever, bad-but-good things with music. I think the most impressive is his medley of the top 10 pop songs at the time he hit 10,000 Twitter followers, which culminates in a surprisingly effective montage finale:

Link – Scientific truth, researcher bias, and parapsychology
In a meta-analysis, the results of many similar experiments are analysed together in order to gain statistical power and shed more light on subtle phenomena. For example, if it’s a very small effect, some experiments won’t yield any results, perhaps causing us to question the experiments that do find an effect; by considering all these experiments together, we can better assess if we’re seeing Type I or Type II errors. Also, if you suspect the result may only come about due to sloppy methodology, you can see if there is a correlation between how ‘rigorous’ a study is and the size of any effect that it finds – if more rigorous studies come up with smaller effects, that’s quite suggestive.

Years ago I read about a meta-analysis of research into psychic abilities, and the results were not clear-cut one way or the other, despite taking a comprehensive overview of the relevant studies. I thought that was very interesting, because it suggested that either psychic abilities were real, or the scientific method wasn’t as infalliable as I had thought (or both).

Many more studies have been performed since, and this problem does not seem to go away. A strong clue seems to be the experimenter’s bias effect: a researcher who believes that an experiment will yield a certain outcome is more likely to end up getting that outcome, even if they are not intentionally manipulating the experiment to that end.

Of course, experimenter’s bias is quite a tricky and small effect to prove, so what you need to do is a meta-analysis across the various studies into it. But when different people conduct this meta-analysis, they reach different conclusions: some find the experimenter’s bias effect exists, and some find it doesn’t!

If you’ve been following closely to this point, you can guess the logical next step: we need a meta-meta-analysis of the experimenter’s bias meta-analyses, to see if meta-experimenters that believe the experimenter’s bias effect exists were more likely to find exactly that result in their meta-analysis! Brilliantly, and also alarmingly, this meta-meta-analysis was conducted and concluded that, yes, that’s exactly what happens: there is indeed a meta-experimenter’s bias effect. So the question now is… does the experimenter’s bias effect actually exist?

I found all this out from a brilliant essay by Scott Alexander, which includes all the juicy references and finishes with an amusingly modified Star Wars quote, so is pretty much perfect.

Puzzle – Sequel Naming
For some media, major new updates are numbered: movies (Iron Man 3), TV series (Game of Thrones Season 4), video games (Call of Duty 4) are obvious, but it’s also dominant in operating systems (Windows 8), Consoles/phones (Playstation 4, Samsung Galaxy S4) and even classical music (Bach’s Cantata No. 140),

Other things don’t seem to work that way, notably books (A Clash of Kings, rather than A Game of Thrones 2) and albums (Björk – Post, rather than Debut 2), but also theatrical productions (admittedly much rarer, but it’s Love Never Dies, rather than Phantom of the Opera 2)

(Of course, sometimes people mix their strategies with hilarious results: Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare 2, BT Infinity 2, Xbox “One”)

The contrast is most stark in TV series versus books. So the question is this: why do we have Game of Thrones Season 2 on TV, but A Clash of Kings in book form?

Tim Mannveille tweets as @metatim, and previously worried about old things disappearing from the internet 


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 65: Trololo, Animation Analysis, Numerical Keyboards

(Originally sent March 2010, maybe)

What sort of old TV clip would spawn a dedicated site whose main purpose is simply to play it on loop? (Sound is essential)

I did a bit of analysis on the data that went into Disney’s decision to give up on 2D animation, including the correlation between how good a film is and how much money it makes:

Bad guy to henchman:

“Don’t you know what a rhetorical question is?!”

(From Leroy and Stitch)

Why do the numbers on phone keypads read left to right and down (so 1, 2, 3 are in the top row) whereas calculators and keyboards run the numbers left to right but upwards (with 1,2,3 in the bottom row)?

I think we’re just scratching the surface with the kind of art Photoshop helps us create.