Old Special

Things 61: Story Analysis Special

(Originally sent October 2009)

Recently I’ve come across a whole bunch of things that could be termed ‘story analysis’ – the appliance of science (or at least pattern-spotting) to the art of the story.

It started when I recently read Joseph Campbell’s “The Hero with a Thousand Faces”, in which he details the stages of the ‘Hero’s journey’ (or ‘monomyth’), an outline that he argues all great myths, legends, fairy tales and religious stories adhere to in one form or another. In terms of telling me a lot of smart stuff about a thing I don’t know much about, it’s one of the best books I’ve ever read, as it’s given me a fantastically clear lens through which to understand and analyse stories.

Amazon link

Wikipedia link (which is a great way to get most of the idea without reading the book):

As quoted in the Wikipedia article, a criticism of Campbell’s thesis by Donald J. Consentino:

“It is just as important to stress differences as similarities, to avoid creating a (Joseph) Campbell soup of myths that loses all local flavor.”

(Actually it’s clear from reading the book that Campbell positively delights in the local flavour, not to mention the fact that this criticism essentially misses the entire point, but it’s a nice quote anyway).

King of geekery monetisation Randal Monroe of XKCD has created nice diagrams showing character movement in films:

(click to view much larger)

(As with many things he’s done before, it’s something I’ve done at one point myself in a half-interested pencil and paper way, but he takes the idea to its logical conclusion and I fully expect it to appear shortly in his store as a poster, where similar things can be obtained ) [Yep, there it is. – T.M. 11/9/2011]

In the world of gaming there are additional constraints to storytelling, leading to some amazing homogeneity of story as recently brought to my attention by Simon in the following chart of BioWare game clichés.

Another Link
No coverage of pattern-spotting in stories would be complete without mentioning TV Tropes, a wiki for pretty much exactly that. Some examples:

Slouch Of Villainy

Obviously Evil

Very Special Episode

This Week’s Puzzle – Exceptions that prove the rule
Any attempt to find patterns in stories will encounter exceptions. A frequent response to this is to say “that’s the exception that proves the rule!”, which is a clever way of saying “the thing that proves me wrong actually proves me right, because I say so”. Of course, that’s a wilful misreading of the phrase, but the question naturally arises: how is that phrase supposed to be interpreted and used?

Last week’s puzzle – Showers
Showers are amazingly complicated, with feedback delays, mixing issues and subtle interactions of water pressure all conspiring to make the simple task of achieving a reasonable temperature surprisingly difficult, and I intend to write a blog post with more detail on these different factors at a later date.

Meanwhile, my own solution has been to set the hot water temperature on the boiler and not use the cold tap in the shower at all, thus sidestepping all of these issues.


Things 93: Wormworld Saga, Newton and Pascal, Idiots and Maniacs

If you like webcomics, or just enjoy seeing examples of excellent use of light in digital paintings, do check out the first chapter of Wormworld Saga.

Einstein, Newton and Pascal decide to play hide and seek. Einstein is it, closes his eyes, counts to 10 then opens them. Pascal is no where to be seen. Newton is sitting right in front of Einstein, with a piece of chalk in his hand. He’s sitting in a box drawn on the ground, a meter to a side. Einstein says “Newton, you’re terrible, I’ve found you!” Newton says “No no, Einy. You’ve found one Newton per square meter. You’ve found Pascal.”

This sprang out of the discussion on language pedantry last week on the RAPP CC list.

In “Eats, Shoots and Leaves” Lynne Truss makes the following observation:

Yes, as Evelyn Waugh wrote: “Everyone has always regarded any usage but his own as either barbarous or pedantic.” Or, as Kingsley Amis put it less delicately in his book The King’s English (1997), the world or grammar is divided into “berks and wankers” – berks being those that are outrageously slipshod about language, and wankers those who are (in our view) abhorrently over-precise.

A similar observation in a different field is attributed to George Carlin:

Have you ever noticed that anybody driving slower than you is an idiot, and anyone going faster than you is a maniac?

It seems to me that grammatical precision and driving speed fall into a very particular category of behavioural spectra in which we seem to be highly critical of others who vary from our own view in one direction or the other, even slightly. Other examples I’ve observed being described in a similar way and heard people comment on with varying degrees of politeness are alcohol consumption, smartness of dress, household cleanliness, and various aspects of personal hygiene.

The question is, what is it about these behaviours that makes us so sensitive to differences?

I’m not at all sure this diagram works fully, but I like it a lot anyway:


Things 90: Inception Diagram, Clay Shirky on Wikileaks, United States of Autocomplete

Tim Link
After a lot of research and a second viewing with a lot of note-taking, I felt like I had got to the bottom of Inception. My diagram and explanation of what I think is really going on can be found on Tower of the Octopus.

Clay Shirky’s view of the Wikileaks situation seems much more balanced and reasonable than anything else I’ve read on it.

Also, see the Wikipedia article on the Streisand Effect.

I can’t actually find who said this first on Twitter:

Pissing off 4chan: free. Botnet hire: $1000/month. For everything else, there’s Mast– oh, wait, not any more there isn’t.

We are told that your ears go ‘pop’ in a plane after take-off because of the air pressure changing with altitude. But we also know that the cabin has to be airtight, as if air could get out the pressure would equalise and above 17,000 feet everyone would die. So why does the air pressure change in the cabin at all?

From Dorothy ‘Cat and Girl’ Gambrell’s visualisation site Very Small Array, the United States of Autocomplete gives Google’s autocompleted suggestion of what should come after each state name (note results are regional, we’ll get different results from the UK) (click for full size):

Last Week’s Puzzle
Last week I asked “why does the perceived attractiveness of any given individual vary so much depending on who you ask?”, which provoked quite a bit of discussion on the CC list.

Thomas points out:

It’s not enough for both parents to have ‘good” genes, but they should have “good” genes that are sufficiently different that any child will have the maximum possible genetic advantages.

Or as Xuan put it:

Attractiveness: Relative to your genes and where you want them to go.

Simon adds a practical consideration:

… people of similar levels of attractiveness find each other attractive (because your genes have the best chance of survival if you can maximise some function of beauty x propensity to shag me)

Phil counters:

So many couples look very similar though! Perhaps that is somewhat due to acquired mannerisms, but I’d have thought there’s a strong trend to find people similar to yourself attractive, to help similar genes survive

My summary of the situation was this:

To have the best chance of promoting themselves, your genes want to help others with similar genes (and procreating with them is pretty helpful), but also combine themselves with complementary genes. With both of these pressures in effect, and a distorting lens of nurture on top of the nature, we can’t be too surprised that people disagree on attractiveness.

Finally, Matt raises the logical next question – how to genes actually do this:

I think we may be giving too much credit to genes abilites to recognise similar genes and indeed complementary genes here. And after all, there are a lot of different genes with a vested interest here. I would posit that we decide who would be a good catch based on a set of genes (and so on) that try to recognise success in any form – one of the primary indicators surely being perceived social standing, but also apparent health, virility etc. So, regardless of precise genes, recognising good stuff.
I find the idea of encoding a DNA sequence that will give rise to a brain that will perceive the outside world and detect optimal reproductive opportunities almost completely mindboggling.