Things 102: Bionic Cat Ears, Brilliant Journalism, Drawable Monsters

This Week’s Puzzle
I have a Tumblr on which I post daily things to draw, called Now Draw This. I really want to make sure I credit the relevant artist when I post a piece of artwork. (I should do that with the photos too, but for various reasons that’s not as important to me).

TinEye is an awesome reverse image search engine, which in the past has helped me track down artwork even when the version I had turned out to have had the colour palette significantly edited. Pretty clever.

The problem is, this site posted the above image (of Ico and Yorda from the game Ico), and neither TinEye nor wily Googling is helping me track down the original artist.

Can you find out who created the above image originally?

Technology expands the range of things we can do. As a society we try to keep up by generating some kind of idea of what we should do. For example, mobile phones enabled us to use ostentatious ringtones. For a while they were everywhere. Now, it seems we’ve collectively decided that’s not such a good idea.

So here’s something I hadn’t even considered: what if you could collect some kind of real-time usually-invisible data about yourself, and then manifest it with a clear physical signal? Would that ever be a good idea?

Michael Lewis writes long articles on complex but important topics, that are nonetheless incredibly engaging, thus creating pretty much optimal long-form journalistic pieces. I highly recommend that you make time for his article Beware of Greeks Bearing Bonds (which I thought I’d linked to before but can’t find in my records), and if you like that then you should also read When Irish Eyes Are Crying.

Joe Cornish, director of Attack the Block, interviewed by Little White Lies:

If you look at a lot of the digital creatures in Harry Potter, you couldn’t go home and sketch them – you’d need a draughtsman’s degree. […] The charm is to go home and feel that it’s possible to figure out how they did it. When I was a kid, I’d go and see Ghostbusters and spend the next day trying to draw the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man, or trying to get the logo right. They had a graphic simplicity that was much more infectious and warm and authored than a lot of the stuff now.”

I had the same childhood experience, and I think it’s a really fun rubric. Attack the Block‘s creature design succeeded in exactly that way.

Last Week’s Puzzle
Last week I asked what the purpose was of this insect-eye mirror I saw on the ceiling in a bank in Vienna, but nobody hazarded a guess.

You can tell from the shadow that there’s a bright spotlight pointed at the mirror, so my hypothesis was that it was some kind of way to generate a bright, ambient light throughout the room. But it seems like overkill / overdesign if that’s the goal. And why would you want to have a diffuse, shadowless light that badly anyway? I like to imagine, completely baselessly, that there’s a local superstition about some kind of money-stealing creature that inhabits shadows. But if you can think of something more plausible, do let me know.


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.

Things 84: Sleep or Draw, Free Will Test, Ursa Magus

Tim Link
I’d like to get better at drawing, and I know the best way to do that is to draw every day. But previous attempts to form this habit always run out of steam. My new plan is to post each drawing on Tumblr, and also to tell people that I am doing so (so you reading this is an integral part of the plan). Even if nobody ever follows that feed, the fact I’ve published it theoretically creates the sense of accountability I need. I’m also very impressed at how good Tumblr is at streamlining the publishing process, and highly recommend it for this kind of endeavour:

Sleep or Draw
(Note: link contains screen-high female manga characters, which depending on your workplace may be considered NSFW)

Despite familiarity with Google Streetview, being presented with random locations on earth by this site does feel strangely magical.

Observed on Facebook:

Commenter: “People do give a damn but most can’t be assed to show their support”
Profilee: “Well then they don’t give enough of a damn for it to be worth a damn.”
Commenter: “Damn!”

I was fascinated to read an article in the Daily Telegraph which suggested that the fact you can artificially create a stimulus in someone’s brain that will cause them to make a physical movement somehow proved that Free Will does not exist. Whatever you might think about Free Will, it seems pretty clear that being able to get some kind of effect by one method doesn’t exclude the possibility that a different method could still provoke the same effect, so the leap to ruling our Free Will seems premature.

Still, I think there’s an instructive puzzle here: given an arbitrary budget, and any science-fiction technology you care to imagine, how would you devise a test to see if Free Will exists? Feel free to use any definition of Free Will you think might be useful.

I tested this game (from with a friend while stuck on a delayed tube train. I recommend it.

Previous Week’s Puzzles
In Things 82 I asked why street lights weren’t at least partially solar powered, and in Things 83 I gave some guesses. Richard pointed out that since both street lamps and council buildings are already connected to the grid, any effort in this area would be better spent on the latter, where solar panels would be far easier to deploy and maintain.

He also notes that:

The street furniture I’ve seen with solar/wind panels tends to be speeding signs in rural areas, where the sign is only illuminated occasionally, appears to be LEDs, where a connection to the grid might be costly, and where a power failure would not be inconvenient.

Russell points out that the Mars rover proved more resilient to sand build-up than originally expected because the Martian wind did a good job of keeping the panels clean (so bolstering the potential of the solar-powered street lamps I originally linked to); he also links to the appealing prospect of solar-energy-harnessing paint.

Then, in Things 83 I asked why fingers wrinkle in water and the rest of your skin doesn’t. Russell noted that from his diving experience he knew for a fact that your palms will also eventually go wrinkly after an hour or two, and attributed this to surface-area:volume ratio differences.

The internet tells me that the first barrier to the water is the layer of sebum, and only once that is washed away can the water get in and wrinkle the skin. An unknown internet person claims the finger tips have the least sebum, so are first to wrinkle. However, the first link (which sounds pretty authoritative) also claims that “no one is really sure” exactly what drives the wrinkling process, and wikipedia cites a paper which claims sebum “may serve little or no purpose in modern humans,” so it seems as if the whole thing remains somewhat mysterious.

There’s also a deeper question behind these answers: is this wrinkling thing a Bug or a Feature of our skin, or to put it another way, did it evolve for a reason? Being a fan of the (heftily discredited) Aquatic Ape Hypothesis, I like to imagine it’s actually a feature designed to improve grip when we’re in the water, an idea which presumably could be tested with some kind of gripping experiment, which I may at some point try to carry out.