Things 66: ChatRoulette piano, Tube Door Challenge, Free Will

(Originally sent March 2010, maybe)

ChatRoulette is a fascinating site whose mission is simply to connect you to a random person to video chat with. This is just as good and bad an idea as it sounds. I don’t recommend visiting (particularly if you have a webcam active as it will attempt to throw you into a random encounter immediately) but I do recommend reading about it.

It turns out to be a great environment for improv performance as shown in this video (sound essential, 5’28” long but the first 40” gives you the idea):

I’m fascinated by the extent to which people respond silently – and contrast this with how we usually provide feedback to a musical performance. There’s some very interesting human-machine-human interface stuff going on here.

Sometimes an aesthetic is a byproduct of technology – high contrast in over-reproduced 6”x10” glossy star photos, inconsistent speed in old black and white film, the depth and colour range in Polaroid photos, or the way 80s TV series look rubbish. Digital processing grants a whole new level of control over colour and the ability to choose from a vast range of possible palettes, but the result seems to be that everyone is doing the same thing. This is quite likely how films made in the last ten years will reveal their age when we look back on them ten years from now.

(via Tim Connor)

Marin Alsop: “Tradition is simply the last bad idea”

Free Will

This weeks’ puzzle
Many years ago Nick challenged me to work out how to tell where the doors of a London Underground tube carriage would stop on the platform so that you could optimise where to stand to improve your odds of boarding first and so getting a seat. I came up with an answer that didn’t work terribly well but assumed that was what he had in mind (without ever confirming it). Only now after 5 months of catching 4 tube trains every workday have I realised a much better solution.

What do you think my first and second solutions were?

Last week’s puzzle
Why are calculator and phone keyboards laid out oppositely? There doesn’t seem to be a definitive answer, but there are a few very likely suspects.

The original decisions that led to 123 being at the bottom for calculators are unclear. Thomas suggests it’s a matter of “where your attention is coming from” – combined with Benford’s law I suspect this could be a key factor driving the layout of the first common mechanical number-entering devices, cash registers, and how devices evolved from there.

When it came to phone pads, it seems (remarkably for this kind of thing) that AT&T actually did some user testing and found the 3×3 grid with 123-at-the-top was the easiest for people to master. As letters were also a consideration in those days, putting ABC with 1 (and so on) made most intuitive sense, and would have looked pretty bizarre had 123 been at the bottom.

My preferred write-up of possible answers comes from The Straight Dope.

Various other attempts to answer this question are curated here.

Richard also points out the following (my summary of his words [my comments in square brackets]):

Handedness is a consideration for other aspects of the layout; in particular computer keyboard number keypads, which sit on the right-hand side, are supposed to be operated with the left hand [a revelation to me after years of feeling slightly odd using my little finger to press the return key], and an interesting challenge emerges when one keyboard is used for both data-entry/calculation and telephone operation, as with Skype today, or the over-prescient One-Per-Desk in 1984.


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.