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?

Old Special

Things 61: Story Analysis Special

(Originally sent October 2009)

Recently I’ve come across a whole bunch of things that could be termed ‘story analysis’ – the appliance of science (or at least pattern-spotting) to the art of the story.

It started when I recently read Joseph Campbell’s “The Hero with a Thousand Faces”, in which he details the stages of the ‘Hero’s journey’ (or ‘monomyth’), an outline that he argues all great myths, legends, fairy tales and religious stories adhere to in one form or another. In terms of telling me a lot of smart stuff about a thing I don’t know much about, it’s one of the best books I’ve ever read, as it’s given me a fantastically clear lens through which to understand and analyse stories.

Amazon link

Wikipedia link (which is a great way to get most of the idea without reading the book):

As quoted in the Wikipedia article, a criticism of Campbell’s thesis by Donald J. Consentino:

“It is just as important to stress differences as similarities, to avoid creating a (Joseph) Campbell soup of myths that loses all local flavor.”

(Actually it’s clear from reading the book that Campbell positively delights in the local flavour, not to mention the fact that this criticism essentially misses the entire point, but it’s a nice quote anyway).

King of geekery monetisation Randal Monroe of XKCD has created nice diagrams showing character movement in films:

(click to view much larger)

(As with many things he’s done before, it’s something I’ve done at one point myself in a half-interested pencil and paper way, but he takes the idea to its logical conclusion and I fully expect it to appear shortly in his store as a poster, where similar things can be obtained ) [Yep, there it is. – T.M. 11/9/2011]

In the world of gaming there are additional constraints to storytelling, leading to some amazing homogeneity of story as recently brought to my attention by Simon in the following chart of BioWare game clichés.

Another Link
No coverage of pattern-spotting in stories would be complete without mentioning TV Tropes, a wiki for pretty much exactly that. Some examples:

Slouch Of Villainy

Obviously Evil

Very Special Episode

This Week’s Puzzle – Exceptions that prove the rule
Any attempt to find patterns in stories will encounter exceptions. A frequent response to this is to say “that’s the exception that proves the rule!”, which is a clever way of saying “the thing that proves me wrong actually proves me right, because I say so”. Of course, that’s a wilful misreading of the phrase, but the question naturally arises: how is that phrase supposed to be interpreted and used?

Last week’s puzzle – Showers
Showers are amazingly complicated, with feedback delays, mixing issues and subtle interactions of water pressure all conspiring to make the simple task of achieving a reasonable temperature surprisingly difficult, and I intend to write a blog post with more detail on these different factors at a later date.

Meanwhile, my own solution has been to set the hot water temperature on the boiler and not use the cold tap in the shower at all, thus sidestepping all of these issues.