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


Things 98: Weakest Link Puppets, GPS Doom, Visual Metaphors

I really like The Weakest Link Puppets Special. There’s something about the way these worlds collide that just keeps me smiling as I watch – childish responses to adult questions, adult responses to childish questions, and a wonderful willingness of all concerned to make what’s ultimately one of the simplest illusions going really work. If you want to see the rest of the episode, YouTube will show you the way.

A New Scientist article on how a surprising amount of our technological world is reliant on GPS.

After last week’s question on old-stuff-on-the-internet, I was looking back at my old Geocities site (now living on my own domain after Geocities shut down) and came upon my old Alternative Newsletters. I like to think of these as precursors to the Things email, but they’re really completely different, so I probably shouldn’t.

Anyway, one of them had the following quiz, which I thought I’d adapt for Things:

1) Is the answer to this question yes?
2) Is the answer to this question no?
3) Is the answer to question 4 maybe?
4) Are most of the answers yes in this quiz?
5) Have you stopped worrying about logical yes/no question traps?
6) If you answered maybe to questions 1-5, ask yourself another question in place of this one: If you cyclically rotate ‘maybe’, ‘no’ and ‘yes’ forwards through the alphabet, then answer questions 3 and 5 again, does this change whether or not you have to answer this question?
7) Answer this question last: What is the answer to question 8?
8) Is the answer to this different in comparison with the answer to the last question?

You don’t need answers, you know how many you got right.
0-2 questions correct: congratulations, you could be sane.
3-5 questions correct: bonus question! Did you get more than 3 correct? Answer, mark, and re-score.
6-8 questions correct: you do not need my congratulations, getting this many correct is its own reward (and punishment)
9+ questions correct: See Me.

A periodic table (actually not really periodic) of metaphors:
(click for big)

Last Week’s Question
Last Week I asked “What is the oldest evidence of your own activity on the internet you can still provide a live link to now”.

For me personally, it’s this review on Amazon dated 24th September 2001. I was active in a few other places before that, but they’re all dead now. Let this serve as a reminder to back up any data you hold dear.

Richard beats this by a long distance, with his usenet post dated 4th February 1992. Nearly 20 years ago! That’s a long time in the world of the internet.

By the way, the natural conclusion of this little game would be to try to find a link to the oldest thing on the internet. I’d have no idea where to begin, but let me know if you do.


Things 28: Shampoo Theories, Cat Heaven, Large Hadron Collider,

(Originally sent September 2008)

If I have time, I may watch Pineapple Express, because a collision between a stoner flick and an action adventure movie sounds very silly.


IMDb: 7.8/10
RT: 70%

Last week’s puzzle
Why does shampoo become less effective with use?

I received some answers to this, and it seems there are two main theories.

1) The hair/scalp adapts to the chemicals and starts to resist them

2) Shampoo residue builds up over time

I then put these questions to the yahoo answers community through my secret research alter-ego.

The fact that hair is ‘dead’ would seem to deny theory 1) to me. In The Week I read that the biggest mistake made by people washing their hair is that they don’t rinse it enough, and you should rinse it for about twice as long as you expect. This would seem to endorse 2), but having tried this myself for the past 2 months I found the problem persists.

Mystery status: unsolved
This week’s puzzle
Why are some people photogenic and some not? In other words, why do people look different in photos to real life?

A video:
Cat heaven, including peaceful co-existence with dogs:
Cats on the kings:


A link or 3
There has been much talk about the Large Hadron Collider at CERN and whether or not it will end the world. Someone has helpfully created this page:
View the source code to see how the site works.

However, there is an interesting development – it seems the site does not really work:

Meanwhile everyone can keep an eye on the experiment for themselves from these webcams:

A quote
A wonderfully true and melancholic song title from the Future Sound of London:
“Everyone in the world is doing something without me”

A picture
The big challenge when designing shop window advertising is to somehow get people to stop walking by and actually come into your shop and buy something. See a copywriter’s innovative answer to this problem in the image attached. (Photo taken between WWAV and Hammersmith tube)