Tag Archives: evolution

Things February 2018: YouTube series, Poor estimation, The Patriarchy

The patriarchal explanation

The Octonauts is a charming kids TV series, based on the picture books of the same name (referenced in the Things Kids Special in 2013). It features eight anthropomorphised animals on a Star-Trek-style mission to explore the ocean and encounter the Interesting Sea Creature of the Week.

I noticed that the same three (male) characters go on exploratory missions almost every episode, even when other (female) characters would be better qualified for the task at hand, which seemed odd for an otherwise progressive kids TV series. Looking for people who agreed with me on the internet, as you do, I stumbled upon this excellent mumsnet exchange:

Bumperlicious:  Why are the girls relegated to mere sidekicks & not even mentioned in the opening titles? Is because they’re girls or because they’re both [foreign]?

TunipTheHollowVegemalLantern:  It is because of the patriarchy.

This turns out to be a highly versatile response which you can use to answer many questions about modern culture! It also has the benefit of sounding like a joke, while also frequently being accurate.

YouTube series of note

The Vox ‘Earworm‘ series by Estelle Caswell digs into various aspects of music, including a few really interesting pieces on long-term musical trends in the US pop charts. I particularly enjoyed the episodes on the triplet flow in rap, the fade-out, and especially repetition:

The ‘Fictional Fight Commentary‘ series does exactly what you hope: pitch-perfect delivery from Auralnauts creators Craven and Zak commenting on various famous fight scenes from movies. My personal favourite is the Revenge of the Sith Anakin/Obi-wan fight, but the Batman vs. Superman one is also great.

(Incidentally, Auralnauts had the dubious honour of having a video in which they removed the original music track get flagged as copyright infringing – for using the music track they removed, by the copyright holders of the song that was no longer present. Also incidentally, they made the generic film trailer I put in the last Things).

Every Frame A Painting was an incredible series of videos about movies and I’m amazed I haven’t featured it in Things before. It’s narrated by Tony Zhou, jointly written and edited with Taylor Ramos – although this latter part was only revealed in the post-mortem, the reasons explained in more detail by Taylor herself here, but more tersely one can say It Is Because Of The Patriarchy.

Aiming for quality over quantity, all 28 EFAP videos are brilliant, but as you have to start somewhere, I particularly recommend Jackie Chan – How to Do Action Comedy, The Spielberg Oner, and The Marvel Symphonic Universe.

Terrorism using the media as a megaphone

As I understand it, the aim of a regular terrorist is to create terror disproportionate to the amount of power they actually have. So perhaps the media response to these incidents should be a little more tempered, since that attention is exactly how terrorists gain a disproportionate response. I’m not sure there’s any good way to balance that though, especially with social media doing much of the amplification.

Still, I found it interesting that this quite wide-ranging study found a correlation between media coverage and subsequent violent incidents.

 “one additional New York Times article about an attack in a particular country increased the number of ensuing attacks in the same country by between 11% and 15%”

Poor estimation as a feature, not a bug

When doing indoor rock-climbing, or during my brief dalliance with extremely amateur parkour, I noticed that I and others tend to underestimate what we can physically achieve. We could jump further than we thought; we could stretch to reach a hand-hold that seemed too far; we could gain greater lift by running and kicking off a wall than we expected, and so on.

Now, I know that “evolutionary psychology” theories are usually untestable and often useless, simply servicing to reinforce one’s existing prejudices. Still, it’s easy to imagine that this physical capability bias (which I haven’t found named, but presumably must be) would work as a survival trait: creatures that overestimated their ability to achieve physical feats would presumably be at a mortal disadvantage in the long run.

This led me to wonder about another tremendously strong bias we have that runs the other way: the Planning Fallacy, best summed up by Hofstadter’s Law:

It always takes longer than you expect, even when you take into account Hofstadter’s Law. — Douglas Hofstadter

Superficially this bias seems like it should be a disadvantage. However, since many humans can benefit from one human’s work, perhaps we collectively benefit, as people work on things (and eventually, sometimes, complete them) that they wouldn’t have tried if they had correctly anticipated how long it would take, to society’s benefit.

It’s a trivial example, but I naively thought I could tell a particular story in a comic at one page a week in two years; it ended up taking more like seven. I probably wouldn’t have started it if I had realised that, but I’m glad that I did it, and now people – or at least, fans of two particular video games from 1999 – benefit from it.


When I first read about Bitcoin, I figured it was a cute idea but it didn’t scale, so couldn’t really work as an alternative global currency. Some of the scaling issues are now becoming apparent. As is so often the case, Charlie Stross has an insightful take on the matter.

Unendurable Line

I found this video quite satisfying:

Marie Kondo

In an age of abundance, we now routinely run into the problem of having too many things, and things like loss aversion make it difficult for us to deal with the issue. This scene from Labyrinth (1986) makes a lot more sense to me now than it did as a child:

Clare introduced me to a comic that summarised the ‘KonMari’ method (by Marie Kondo) of dealing with clutter. It isn’t really one method so much as a series of ideas and principles to apply to the task of decluttering. I think it’s particularly effective because it intuitively gets at some of the biases that make this a difficult problem. Here’s a few choice principles:

  • Don’t sort things by location, sort by type. Get all your (say) books in one place, then figure out what to do with them.
  • Don’t think about ‘what can I throw out’. Think about ‘what should I keep’. Only keep things that ‘spark joy’.
  • Don’t buy more storage units. This is sort-of tidying up, but isn’t decluttering. It’s just a way of getting the clutter out of your sight.
  • The correct time to read a book is when it’s you just acquired it. If you have many books you have not read for years, let them go. When it’s time to read one, you can easily get it again.

Most deeply, Marie Kondo observes that a lot of useless clutter takes us out of the present moment: we over-attach to the past with belongings that are no longer useful to us, and we over-attach to a theoretical future version of ourselves by keeping things we aspire to use but never will.

This echoes a message from the amazing show The Encounter (recommended to me by Tarim), in which a climactic insight is that “objects hold us stuck in time”.

There’s a KonMari method book or alternatively a comic version.

[This just in, thanks to Anisa – there’s going to be a Marie Kondo Netflix series – T.M. 15/2/18]

Emergent Stop Motion

Like a more accessible version of Thomas Sauvin / Lei Lei’s short film Recycled, Oliver KMIA’s ‘Instravel’ compiles recurring patterns in Instagram holiday photos to create stop-motion-style animation:

- Transmission finally ends

Things 57: Webcam-split-screen, Freaks and Potatoes

(Originally sent September 2009)

Forthcoming film
“Surrogates” is due to be released in the UK on the 25th of September. An adaptation of a graphic novel, it looks to be a solid Sci-Fi in what I consider to be the technically correct sense: positing a potential technological development, the story investigates what might happen in a society where such a thing is possible.

In this case the development is ‘surrogates’ – robot avatars that people control remotely, an idea just nicely at the edge of conceivable possibility.

I think the trailer gives too much away, so if you want to see the basic premise just watch the first 60 seconds, and I strongly recommend not watching beyond 1 minute and 30 seconds (seriously!) if you can possibly resist it!

I saw a video pair on YouTubeDoubler (here – pause the left video until the right one tells you to start it) in which two people use two webcams together to create a video for a duet, and I thought “Good, but could do better”. Someone did:

(Starts to get clever at 40”, goes nuts at around 3’10”)

Webcomic ‘Pictures for Sad Children’ suggests an improvement on the ever-unsubstantiated ‘never more than 3 meters from a rat’ saying:

“We’re in earshot of two terrible things at all times”

“Freaks survive because they are strange” – a great headline, a slightly silly experiment involving food-bearing model salamanders, and a plausible-sounding partial answer to the ‘maintenance of variation’ problem with evolution.

Potato Puzzle
You have 100 kilograms of potatoes that are 99% water by weight. You store them in a cupboard, and when you test them again a week later you discover they are now 98% water by weight. How much do the potatoes weigh?

Magical Ground Squirrel Puzzle Answer:
If the magical ground squirrel is able to position the bridges (say) East-West with such accuracy that an imp wanting to go North could not work out which one pointed slightly more Northerly and so had to choose randomly, then the squirrel has good odds of working out the result of the election by doing exactly that and leaving the bridges there the entire time.

If the imps are headed to the good training centres in the East and West, there will be no random choice made by them and when they have all come out 500 will have gone East and 500 West.

However, if the imps want to go to the evil training centres in the North and West, they will be choosing a bridge randomly. In that case, there is (by my calculation) only about a 2.5% chance that exactly 500 will choose each bridge. There’s a 97.5% chance more will go one way than the other, and in this case you could be sure they were evil.

Things 56: Robot Hand, Earth and Moon, Magical Ground Squirrel Puzzle

(Originally sent August 2009)


“Most problems are side effects of solutions to other problems.” – Eskil Steenberg

Once you have built a machine or robot that can do something, the really cool part is you can then see how fast it can do that thing. In the case of this astoundingly dextrous robot hand, the answer is: alarmingly fast.

A simple idea – a picture representing the earth, the moon, and the distance between them, in the correct proportion.

(Click for description and links to bigger versions):

Last Week’s puzzle
Why are ~10% of people left-handed?

Implicitly, the question is really why 10% instead of 50% or 100%, either of which would be intuitively more obvious (although you’d still wonder why it was one out of those two).

A frequently given answer is that in combat there is an advantage to having a handedness that most others don’t have, since you will be practiced at fighting opposite-handers whereas most of the competition will be practiced against fighting same-handers. An increased number of left-handed players succeeding in adversarial sports such as tennis is cited as evidence.

What’s fascinating about this argument is that it manages to sound convincing but it cannot possibly be the whole answer. If there was an advantage to being in the minority, and if that trait is genetic, then we would expect that over evolutionary time-scales a 50/50 split would emerge. (If fewer are left-handed and have a survival advantage by this argument, then more of the next generation will be left-handed, and so on until no advantage remains).

For the theory to work, there would need to be an evolutionary pressure that goes the opposite way, making left-handedness disadvantageous in some way, with the net effect of the two pressures to be a 10% incidence rate.

As it turns out, it seems we don’t have a definitive answer, but surveying the various theories and research presented in this wikipedia article below it seems to be connected to asymmetry in brain development (a deeper question in itself), with cultural effects (such as fighting) giving an additional skew in the short term.

This Week’s puzzle
There’s a very nice puzzle in quantum information theory. This is my attempt to set the same puzzle in less specialist terminology, and although it ends up being quite long, it does involve a magical ground squirrel.

There is an island in the centre of a large lake.

On the island is the entrance to a tunnel that goes deep underground to the imp underground city.

To the North and South of the lake are two evil imp warrior training centres.

To the East and West of the lake are two good imp warrior training centres.

There has recently been an imp general election, and they will either have elected a good leader or an evil one. 1,000 imp warriors will now be allocated a training centre, with exactly 500 allocated to each one. So, if an evil leader has been elected, 500 imp warriors will be assigned to the North training centre, and 500 the South training centre. If a good leader has been elected, 500 imp warriors will be assigned to the West training centre, and 500 to the East training centre.

You are a magical ground squirrel that lives on the island.

A pair of bridges connect the island to the lake shore in opposite directions.

Your magical power is exactly this: you can rotate the pair of bridges so they lie in any direction from the island, so long as they remain directly opposite one another. So you could choose to have one bridge head directly North and one directly South, or one directly North-West and the other directly South-East, and so on. However, you must never use your magic when an imp is on the island or a bridge, as they will notice and put you in their magical animal zoo.

The 1,000 imp warriors are about to be sent out, one each hour, to go to their respective training centres. Imps are highly random creatures, and they also have a pretty amazing sense of direction. They will be coming out in a random order, and they will head along the bridge that most closely matches the direction of their training centre. If the bridges seem to be perpendicular to the direction they want to go (for example, if the bridges lie East and West and the imp wants to go North) then the imp will pick a bridge at random.

Using only your magical ground squirrel powers, what is the best way to work out whether the imps have elected a good or evil leader?

(Note: this is not intended as a lateral thinking puzzle! You just have to decide how to rotate the bridges and interpret the resulting imp behaviour. But I suppose you could try solving it laterally as well. P.S. Imps can cross a bridge in under half an hour).

Things 55: Cancer, Pentatonics, Handedness and the Police

(Originally sent July 2009)

I saw Moon, which was a very nice bit of old-school sci-fi with a few nice ‘ah-ha!’ moments.

I saw G-Force 3D, and was amazed at how special effects clearly follow some kind of Moore’s law, while good writing remains a nearly insurmountable challenge.

There’s a few sites out there attempting to keep up with what’s referred to as the Daily Mail’s “ongoing effort to classify every inanimate object into those that cause cancer and those that prevent it.” I like the way this one is helpfully laid out.

Of course, what would be nicer would be to use the research papers as a basis for such a project rather than the Daily Mail, at which point you’d probably need better risk-assessment functionality.

For example, I read a proposal to break global warming down to an individual scale – so if collective human actions increase the average temperature by 0.5 degrees over several decades, we could create an approximation for the temperature increase due to the production of any given product or action, and even though it would be tiny it would come to have meaning – e.g. this laptop causes a 23 picokelvin rise, but this one caused 573.

In practice, we’ve seen Carbon labelling, which is I suppose somewhat more accurate and tangible.

Unfortunately risk factors are really too complicated to be distilled to a single number for a single food item.

Bobby McFerrin with a nice demonstration about how intuitive the Pentatonic scale is:

Last week’s puzzle
Why is gravity 37% that of Earth’s on Mars, even though Mars only has 11% of the Earth’s mass? Clearly there are Laws Of Physics at work, and we can’t fairly expect to have an intuitive understanding of how strong gravity ‘ought’ to be on planetary scales.

That said, there are two factors clearly at work:

– Density: Mars is slightly less dense than the earth – 3.9g/cm^3 vs 5.5 g/cm^3, or 71%

– Radius: Mars’ radius is 53% that of Earth’s. If you were somehow standing on a platform one earth radius away from the centre of Mars, the gravity you feel would certainly be weaker than the 37% that you would experience on the surface.

(Side note: if earth (or indeed any planet) were hollow, there would be no gravity on the inside, as the gravitational pull due to the outer shell cancels out no matter where you are in the interior!)

This week’s puzzle

Why are about 10% of people left-handed?


The Week
is a weekly summary of “everything you need to know about everything that matters”, expertly editing together coverage of the main stories of the week into coherent, balanced, and concise summaries.

Here’s a cut down version of their concise version of a story from Germany, which as well as cutting all the fluff from a story that could probably be expanded to a movie adaptation I also liked because it’s a wonderful case of reversing the usual fiction trope that ‘Police are Useless’

“Germany’s wealthiest woman, Susanne Klatten hit the headlines last year when her former lover was arrested for trying to extort €49m from her. He told Klatten that he had made a secret video of them having sex and threatened to make it public unless his demands were met. But Klatten went to the police and he was arrested.

“Last month, three men wrote a letter to Klatten in which they claimed to have a copy of the sex video and demanded €800,000 and a BMW car for its return. Once again Klatten called the police and the three were arrested.”

Okay, it probably wouldn’t make a very good movie.