Things 103: Troll Hunter, Algorithmic Price War, London from Above

I just got back from Edinburgh International Film Festival, which had some problems this year, but as an individual punter I nonetheless carved myself out an even better time than last year, thanks mainly to Clare’s choices from the programme and also to Twitter for alerting me to a few late-announced events. A full write up will naturall follow, but for now, I will simply recommend this, which will apparently see some sort of UK release in early September:

I suspect we will start to see more and more of this kind of thing: algorithms written to handle clever tasks in a not-perfectly-clever way, interacting with one another in ways their creators did not forsee since they did not anticipate the other algorithms theirs would be interacting with, to produce bizarre results like this Amazon marketplace book being listed for $23m. Hilarious and terrifying at the same time.

A bunch of sci-fi stories (most recently some Dr Who episodes) confront us with the question: if you encountered an exact copy of yourself, how well would you get on? Very often in these scenarios, the duplicates end up fighting one another. Does that seem realistic for most people? For you? (I have a slightly tangential self-test for this one)

For those of us that live in the UK, it’s hard to imagine that for some people London apparently has the same kind of Destination Appeal as New York, Paris or Tokyo. These pictures of London from above help me to start to see their point of view.


Things 34: Uncertainty, Cat on Roomba, Lemurs

(Originally sent November 2008)

Welcome to Things, a weekly email I send around with stuff that I have found or dug out from my archives. This week some new people have been added to the list, so it is now going out to:

6 people at RAPP
2 people that used to be at RAPP
3 members of my family
1 other cool person
1 me

The default is for everyone to receive Things privately. If you are happy to receive it on a CC list so that you can reply-to-all and discuss the contents with similarly interested people, let me know – so far two people from the above list are doing that.

Anyway, on to the Things.

If I had time to see any film this coming week it would be Waltz with Bashir, which apparently breaks new ground both as an animation and as a documentary. (From the trailer it doesn’t actually seem to take rotoscoping much further than Richard Linklater already has with Waking Life and A Scanner Darkly, but it’s still cool).

IMDb: 8.1/10
Rotten Tomatoes: 91%



A link
The McCollough effect is a brilliant optical illusion effect which remains unexplained. Try it out here.

A quote
Tycho, Penny Arcade:

“Innovations are just gimmicks you happen to like.”

Last week’s puzzle
Last time I asked that if regular slow zombies represent the inevitability of death, what do fast zombies represent?

My personal answer is that fast zombies are just a distillation of our worst fears about other people – reduced to pure irrational rage and threat. It also unlocks a primal desire to defend yourself with violence, and by reducing other people to zombies we need not feel guilt about doing violent things to them. (Compare Carmageddon, a game in which the aim was to run people over, but since this was considered unacceptable by the ratings board the people were replaced by zombies).

This week’s puzzle
This week, it’s a graph puzzle. Take a look at the trend in search volume for the word ‘Uncertainty’:

It follows a clear annual trend. Why is that?

A Video
A cat riding on a Roomba, which is an autonomous vacuum cleaning robot. Interestingly, 2 out of the 12 people receiving this email own such a device.


Google is now hosting the photographic archive from LIFE magazine, including photos that never made it into print. So far they have put up 2 million of an anticipated 10 million images at pleasingly high resolution. You can also buy a print of any image you like, for an only slightly exorbitant cost.

As with all new resources, I tested it out by seeing what it had on lemurs. The answer is: lots. It turns out that from page 2 onwards almost all of the results come from a brilliant photo shoot revolving around a family that has a pet lemur.


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 21: Trolley Problem, Hamster Gaming, Sky Font

(Originally sent July 2008)

This week’s films – one line reviews
If you like nice fluffy happy films you have to see Wall-E. If you like dark mind-bending films you have to see The Dark Knight. These are both extraordinary films that demand and deserve your attention.

Next Week’s film
I’ll be watching Mamma Mia.

I’ll be watching Dark Knight again.

One of the above is true, the other is completely ridiculous and out of the question.

A Puzzle
Inspired by the events in The Dark Knight, here is the standard “trolley problem” (where trolley actually means tram):

A trolley is running out of control down a track. In its path are 5 people who have been tied to the track by a mad philosopher. Fortunately, you can flip a switch which will lead the trolley down a different track to safety. Unfortunately, there is a single person tied to that track. Should you flip the switch?

A Quote
“The infinite possibilities each day holds should stagger the mind. The sheer number of experiences I could have is uncountable, breathtaking, and I’m sitting here refreshing my inbox.”


A Link
Baby bats in mini sleeping bags:–honestly–snuggled-wool-animal-shelter.html

A video
Live action hamster video gaming:


A picture
A wonderful font. (Unfortunately this breaks the nice cute/dark dual theme this Things had going. Oh well).