Things 124: Puzzles & Polaroids, Bond is now Bourne, Cooking Tips

OctopusFruitbat Game Write-upPuzzles & Polaroids at the British Museum
Clare and I were asked by Stubble & Glasses (who I also happen to work for) to design and run a company game event in a professional capacity, because some of them had enjoyed some of our earlier game events. So we formed a company called OctopusFruitbat, came up with something that combined puzzle-solving with creative instant-photo-taking, and it went a bit like this. If you’re ever looking for someone to come up with a similar event, of if you want advice on doing something yourself, please do get in touch!

Also don’t forget, this Friday I’ll be running Competitive Sandwich Making (which last year went like this) as part of the amazing all-weekend festival of gaming that is Hide&Seek’s Weekender at the Southbank Centre.

I’ve been nurturing the idea that films that follow the “They Made Him, Then Tried To Kill Him, Now He Must Fight Them” storyline are rising to such prominence that it must be some kind of Hero’s Journey for the modern age (I’m thinking Bourne, Hitman, Grosse Pointe Blank, Kill Bill, Blade, Ultraviolet…). The closest I could find on TV Tropes was Contract on the Hitman, which doesn’t quite nail it.

On metafilter, wuwei draws it out more explicitly by contrasting James Bond with Jason Bourne:

Who is our generation’s James Bond? Jason Bourne. He can’t trust his employer, who demanded ultimate loyalty and gave nothing in return. […] Bourne survives as a result of his high priced, specialized education. He can do things few people can do […] and like the modern, (sub)urban professional, Bourne had to mortgage his entire future to get that education. They took everything he had, and promised that if he gave himself up to the System, in return the System would take care of him. It turned out to be a lie.

(You can read the post in full here).

Is there any evidence that there really has been such a transition, that corporations are now violating the social contract in some way that they weren’t before? The three charts in this article do seem to actually endorse this idea – Corporate Profits Just Hit An All-Time High, Wages Just Hit An All-Time Low.

Here are some pictures with captions that have some amazing food-preparation tips, for example:

Previous PuzzleThe Shrinking Empires
Last time I asked why Empires seemed to be getting geographically smaller. I’ve actually asked this question when interviewing analysts, and get two kinds of answers.

The most common answer is that population density is increasing, and apparently human political power tends to stabilise around the 10m-50m range. For example, the Roman Empire was pretty big, but probably only covered ~60 million or so people, ten times fewer than those living in the same geographical area today (according to Citation Needed, but hey, it sounds about right).

A more interesting idea is that it has something to do with technology and inequality. I once heard it said that technology is not politically neutral – for example, Nuclear Power requires greater centralisation of government power than, say Wind Power – and I find this an appealing idea. Perhaps, for example, improved forms of communication give greater power to the people, who are then better able to resist tyrants with aspirations of empire-building through war.

But the more I dig into this, the more it starts to look like post-rationalisation, because I can imagine giving examples to prove the opposite. If everyone can manufacture guns cheaply, is it easier to terrify your populace with asymmetric power you can give your enforcers, or is “a well armed population the best defense against dictatorship”? If you improve transport, is it easier to avoid conscription, or easier to wage war? If you combine Moore’s law with the internet to create continuous public surveillance, do you end up creating a single global culture with no crime, or do you permanently enforce the power structures that exist at the point of implementation? Well, that’s a question for another day.

PuzzleGoogle Correlations
Google Correlate lets you find closely correlating Google search term trends, which sometimes gives silly results by coincidence, and sometimes reveals something very interesting. The question is, how many of these correlations can you explain?


Things 123: Game weekends, Puffins, Lilith, Abstract Animated GIFs

Events Sandpit this very weekend (25th August), Weekender later (Fri 14th-Sun 16th September)
Hide & Seek are running one of their curated ‘Sandpit’ game events, taking place on Saturday and Sunday afternoons this weekend (25th and 26th August), unusually but awesomely located at the Natural History Museum. NHM page is here; a longer article about what’s happening can be found on Wired.

Then, from Friday 14th through to Sunday 16th September is Hide & Seek’s Weekender (facebook event here), mostly in the Clore Ballroom in that Royal Festival Hall place, this being as usual a whole festival of games, largely drawn from Sandpit events from the last two years.

This happens to include Competitive Sandwich Making on the Friday, which Clare and I will be running (here’s what happened last year when we ran first), this time featuring a secret rank beyond Earl of Sandwich, if people are competitive enough to discover it. There’s also lots of other amazing things happening, including two of my favourites: Die Gute Fabrik’s Johann Sebastien Joust and Viviane Schwarz’s Treasure Maze.

Tim Link – You’re In A Room
I finally wrote up the game Clare and I made for a more recent Sandpit: You’re In A Room, a sort of Whose Line Is It Anyway version of Knightmare; you can find out what on earth that means here.

Video – Puffin Webcam
In the exciting new world of putting webcam streams onto my TV for background entertainment, now that the Miranda’s Kittens feed is no longer live, I’ve had to find something else. It turns out there’s a whole range of great feeds available on, including a puffin cam.

Bonus videovia Clare while I was writing this
Dog swims with dolphins!

I recently wondered what really is the deal with the biblical (or is she?) character of Lilith, so I turned to Wikipedia on the subject, and found it fascinating – here’s just the section headings to give you an idea of the span of cultural records she appears in:

Mesopotamian mythology
Siegmund Hurwitz
In the Bible
Jewish tradition
Greco-Roman mythology
Arabic mythology
In Western literature
In modern occultism

The highlight for me was discovering that Lilith only appears once in the bible, and even then arguably so, in Isiah 34:

(13) [Edom] shall become an abode for jackals and a haunt for ostriches. (14) Wildcats shall meet with desert beasts, satyrs shall call to one another; There shall the lilith repose, and find for herself a place to rest. (15) There the hoot owl shall nest and lay eggs, hatch them out and gather them in her shadow; There shall the kites assemble, none shall be missing its mate. (16) Look in the book of the LORD and read: No one of these shall be lacking, For the mouth of the LORD has ordered it, and His spirit shall gather them there.

This makes “lilith” (in the bible at least) a hapax legomenon, a word only occurring once in the source and therefore challenging to decipher – given only this context, is she a demon, or just some kind of regular animal with sinister associations?

I also recommend reading this translation of Isiah 34 in full (it’s only ~400 words), as it’s use of hyperbole puts our modern tabloid newspapers and comment trolls to shame.

Pictures – Abstract Animated GIFs
I’ve seen some interesting abstract animated GIFs floating around the internet, and tracked them down to two artists: David Ope, and Mr Div. Here’s one example of each, and do click through to view the rest of their work:

David Ope:

Mr Div:

Puzzle – The shrinking empires
Here’s an unfortunately small version of a fascinating visualisation of world history (which we bought as a poster for the office from Stanfords, although they don’t seem to have them any more), with time running from left to right, and rough location on earth from top to bottom, with identifiable countries/kingdoms/empires marked out:

You can just about see the Roman Empire as a big blob of orange in the middle, the Ottoman Empire in blue towards the right, and the British Empire stretching wide in patches of red before retreating back home by the time we reach the right-hand side representing the present day.

Even at this scale, one pattern is apparent: they just don’t make empires as big as they used to. The closer we get to the present day, the smaller the tribal groups become. Why is this?


Things 105: Pervasive Game Event, Monty Hall, American Politics

Upcoming Event, Thursday August 4th
People that like Things are very likely to like this. On Thursday August 4th from 7pm-10pm, Hide & Seek are running a Sandpit gaming event at the Southbank Centre. In practice this means you get to turn up and play lots of interesting games (for adults) for free. Having been to quite a few of these in the past, I highly recommend it as the games are always fascinating and inspiring. I’m particularly excited about this one because Clare and I will be running a game ourselves, one based on the age-old problem of tessellating pieces of cheese to make a perfect sandwich.

More details of the event can be found here, and the official Facebook event is here. Let me know if you think you can make it!

Puzzle – Monty Hall
After talking to some people about last week’s Two Envelopes puzzle, I realised that many Things readers may not be familiar with the Monty Hall Problem, which one should really understand before tackling the Two Envelopes. So I’ll state that here, then go through the answers to both in the following Things.

In the Monty Hall problem, you are in a gameshow presented by the eponymous Monty. You are asked to choose one of three closed doors. Behind one of the doors is a nice car that you apparently want to win. Behind the other two doors are goats. If you choose the door with the car behind it, you win the car. If you choose a door with a goat behind it, I don’t think you win a goat, but you definitely don’t win the car. Basically the goats are there just for comedic effect.

So you choose a door, pretty much at random. At this point Monty (who knows where the car is) opens one of the remaining two doors to reveal a goat. He does this in every episode of the show – whichever door the contestant chooses, Monty will always then open one of the remaining doors to reveal a goat. He then offers you the chance to switch from your first choice to the other unopened door. The question is: should you switch?

Sometimes The Onion packs a headline with so much satire it barely needs the accompanying article. Most recently I was impressed by American People Hire High-Powered Lobbyist To Push Interests In Congress.

From Jon Stewart’s speech at the “Rally to Restore Santiy”:

The press can hold its magnifying up to our problems bringing them into focus, illuminating issues heretofore unseen or they can use that magnifying glass to light ants on fire and then perhaps host a week of shows on the sudden, unexpected dangerous flaming ant epidemic.

This National Geographic healthcare data visualisation achieves a rare feat: showing the data in an unconventional way that nonetheless actually tells a story with the data quite well. Charlie Park has some great commentary on why a scatter plot of this data isn’t actually as useful in his general discussion of slopegraphs.

Click for big:


Things 54: Plinthriller, Mars, Locational Privacy and Tape Portraits

(Originally sent July 2009)

On Sunday I learned the dance from Thriller from a humanist on the 4th plinth as part of Gormley’s “One & Other” project. One hour wasn’t quite enough to get it all in, but you can see the final run through by skipping to 55:14 in the video here (or watch from the start to learn the routine yourself!):

[Link no longer works, video cannot be found – always remember, the internet is a temporary medium – T.M. 24/07/11]

This week’s puzzle
Mars has just 11% the mass of the Earth, but on its surface gravity is 37% that which we are used to experiencing. Without invoking specific gravitational formulae, how come gravity isn’t a lot weaker on Mars?

The Electronic Frontier Foundation have an excellent white paper on the huge issue of what they term ‘Locational Privacy’. The gist is this:

a) We are moving into a world in which, as they put it, “Information about your location is collected pervasively, silently and cheaply”

b) It’s much easier to build devices and services that use location data without privacy, but privacy is possible to implement

c) If we’re not careful locational privacy will become a thing of the past

My prediction is we will see some interesting awareness stunts, some novel crimes, public perception will turn, flawed laws will be passed, and the world will never be the same again.

Portraits made out of cassette tape.

Things endnotes:
1) Things has become longer over time despite still retaining the same basic format: a video, a link, a quote, a puzzle, and a picture (and also sometimes a film section). So I’m going to try leaving out one of those sections each week.

2) Things has recently accidentally become biweekly due to holidays and busyness. The intent was to be weekly. The intent will continue to be weekly. The result will continue to vary.