Things October 2015: Social Status, External Staircase, Gangster Cats, Music Variants

Human Nature: Social Status, and Laughter

I know of two particularly powerful ideas for explaining a lot of human nature.

First, in this article, Kevin Simler writes up his findings after reading up on the literature regarding social status. The key insight is that we recognise social status through just two different strategies: Dominance, and Prestige. There are some interesting snippets about how we negotiate these differently; for example, you tend to avoid eye-contact with someone that has a higher Dominance-based status than you, but you actively seek eye contact if their status is through Prestige. There’s a lot of other interesting points so you should really just go read it, even if the author does slightly overstate the whole red-pill/rabbit hole bit.

Secondly, some years ago I read a theory about why we smile and laugh from neuroscientist Vilayanur Ramachandran that had an impressive amount of explanatory power. The central idea is that we smile or laugh to signal that something that seems like a “threat” is actually fine. Over millennia, that response has applied to ever more general types of “threat”, such as someone saying something that doesn’t make sense until you re-interpret what they must mean (like a joke). I’m not sure where I originally read it, but it’s covered quite well by William Herkewitz here.


Conical Helix Church Spire External Staircase!

I went to Copenhagen recently, and one of my favourite things was climbing the spire of the Church of our Saviour (Vor Frelsers Kirke), because the staircase climbs the outside part of the spire:

I particularly enjoyed the way it continues to spiral in at the very top until it’s too narrow for a human to squeeze up, creating a brilliant combination of claustrophobia and acrophobia:


AudioBooks to watch out for

Last time I pointed out how you can borrow audiobooks from your local library remotely using Overdrive. Having tried it out, I particularly recommend HP Lovecraft’s Nyarlathotep for a highly condensed 10 minutes of Lovecraftian madness, juxtaposed mind-bogglingly with the creepily up-beat and optimistic pre- and post audio that bigs up the company behind the recording.

don’t recommend listening to Hunter S. Thomson’s The Rum Diary. I naively thought it would be a reasonable introduction to his work, but it turns out to be a book he wrote in his early 20’s and couldn’t get published; it finally saw print in the 90’s when he needed the money and had made his name with better work.


Gangster cat videos

Having watched a bunch of cat videos with “gangster” soundtracks in the hope that there would be more as good as the first two I had seen, I can confirm that there aren’t, so these are all you need to bother with:

(In case of removed video, try this search)


(In case of removed video, try this search)


Extreme theme park rides

Back in 2013 I attended some of the London International Animation Festival, and included a couple of the highlights in Things 130. In a strand that included both documentary and animation shorts, my favourite was “The Centrifuge Brain Project”, which I couldn’t find online when I published Things 130 but has now in fact appeared! Check it out:

(In case of removed video, try this search)


Musical Covers and related concepts

Last time I gave some examples of what I considered to be notable covers. Simon pointed out that the perception of a cover is strongly tied to which version you heard first, making the definition potentially subjective. In my case I only distantly remembered Kylie’s Hand On Your Heart when I heard Jose Gonzalez’s version, which gave it an eerie familiarity, but when I then went back to listen to Kylie’s it sounded like a ridiculous imitation of Gonzalez. This problem multiplies when a cover gains significantly more attention than the original, and seems ridiculous in the context of the strategy in the 40’s and 50’s of releasing as many covers as possible to maximise the return for a composition: as Kottke draws together, Baby, It’s Cold Outside saw 9 releases in 1949, with some covers beating the “original” to the market.

Laurence commented:

“How are we defining ‘cover’ here? For example, while the lyrics are entirely unrelated, Frank Sinatra’s ‘My Way’ uses the same melody as the French song ‘Comme d’habitude’.”

… which made me wonder about the terminology used for other musical combinations. Here’s a review of what I see in the area (if you like music, get ready to open and pause a lot of YouTube tabs, or just open this playlist to get all the YouTube links in sequence):

  • Cover: A new performance of an existing song by a different artist. The lyrics and melody will remain virtually identical, but the individual phrasing of lines and overall structure may differ. See the previous post for examples. This would also be used if the lyrics have been translated, such as in the Waters of March, in which the month is accurately translated but the season referred to naturally switches with the hemispheres; this is also the song used in the lovely animation Omlette that I linked to in Things 128.
  • Mashup: Overlaying or mixing at least two other existing recordings, typically combining the vocal track from one with the instrumental track from the other. Substantial re-ordering of structure and speed alterations may be applied to facilitate the mix. Most awesomely demonstrated in “Smells Like Booty“, more recently with “Shake it Off (The Perfect Drug)“.
  • Remix: A recording that takes the original ‘stems’ of an existing recording, and possibly some new material, and combines them in various ways to create a new track. My personal favourite being Jon Hopkins’ beautiful and sedate “The Low Places” being remixed by Geese as some sort of free-form jazz by a band that can’t quite remember how the original track went (worth making it through the opening cacaphony).
  • Sampling: The use of a typically small sample of an existing recording within a new one. The new song may be composed entirely out of samples from other recordings.
Clearly many variations on these rules are possible, but not that many are common. So let’s see what other combinations could exist.

As per Laurence’s example: Same melody, different lyrics. If the lyrics are just marginally different (such as Coulton’s cover of ‘Baby Got Back’), it counts as a cover. If they’re totally different… we don’t seem to have a term. It’s a little rare (presumably for copyright reasons) but not totally unheard of. Perhaps we could call it a Relyric.

One step removed from this would be to use the actual original instrumental recording (or re-perform the instrumental part in just the same way as it was originally recorded) and put new lyrics over it. A ‘reprise‘ in a musical is something like this, but otherwise I think it’s pretty rare, for copyright reasons. Similarly you could take a purely instrumental work and add lyrics to it, as per the Final Fantasy 4 song I cited in Things back in 2008.

You could take an existing vocal part and record new music behind it. This doesn’t seem very common but I think tends to be called a Remix when it does occur (even though it’s the mirror image of the relyric, which I don’t think could be termed a Remix). For example, Bjork’s original All Is Full Of Love (with that memorably NSFW Android video) vs. Plaid’s lovely remix.

You could take an existing track and perform it with some (perhaps substantial) alterations to lyrics, melody, phrasing and instrumentation, but somehow retain something sufficiently distinctive from the original that clearly forms the basis of the song. You haven’t used any of the original music so it isn’t really a remix, but what is it? I suspect if the original artist is involved and consents to the recording it would still count as a remix (compare Bjork’s original Cosmogony with the El Guincho remix; this is also what’s going on in the Geese remix of The Low Places I mentioned above). I rather liked Max Richter’s take on Vivaldi’s Four Seasons which was along these lines (and was termed “Recomposed” which seems a fitting term); it explicitly plays against the melodies that would be cued in your mind from a familiarity with the original work:

Finally an outlier category: a song with a completely different melody, structure and lyrics, which nonetheless clearly recreates what you might term the “defining funk” of an earlier work. This seems near-impossible to define reasonably and probably shouldn’t be included in this continuum, I only mention it because it came up in the case of Robin Thicke’s Blurred Lines (excellently summarised and contextualised here), a song in which he inexplicably chooses to sing about his personal lurid musings on women and his cavalier approach to consent. A jury found that despite differing from Marvin Gaye’s Got To Give It Up in any musical sense, the defining funk had been “copied”. The actual musical similarities were excellently examined by Joe Bennett.

 – Transmission finally ends 


Things 110: Tom Cookie Monster Waits, Base Jumping with Dan Deacon, Nothing To Hide

Question – is change accelerating?
I’ve had vague qualms about the rhetoric of accelerating change, but intuitively felt that even if the arguments weren’t quite right, there was still some truth in it. Matt Edgar confronts these arguments directly here, noting among other things that Moore’s law is hardly a useful measure of change as experienced by humans, that the human perspective tends to see the present as faster-moving than the past, and that by some important measures, change has actually reduced:

There is one factor that is radically different today from any other time in history, and that is the size of the Earth’s human population […] one might argue that the global population boom is only made possible by stability in whole swathes of the world previously troubled by uncertainty and disruptive change.

So this week’s question: when we say “the pace of change is accelerating”, what exactly do we mean by that, and how can that be proved?

Another example of a cracking concept combined with an excellent execution (provided you’re already passingly familiar with the work of Tom Waits and the Cookie Monster):


The extraordinary API-linking service that acts like internet duct-tape, If This Then That (which I mentioned back in July when talking about how I find things on the internet) has now properly launched. They explain it pretty well on this aptly named page. One of the hardest things to do with IFTTT is work out what you should do with it, so rather brilliantly you can now see a list of the most popular tasks. (Personally I use it to cross-post my webcomic to Tumblr, email myself a reminder to do various things at the end of the month, and to add Twitter favourites to Read It Later).

Another video
That was technically a link I have shared earlier, so here’s something else: a rather nice video of people base jumping in some particularly ridiculous ways. However, the soundtrack gives the impression that they are striving to achieve something important for all of humanity, when in fact it’s pure, senseless, wonderful frivolity. As such, I recommend using a Dan Deacon soundtrack, which I conveniently provide for you below to play at the same time. (Dan Deacon is not to everyone’s taste though, so feel free to substitute your own flavour of insanely optimistic music).

For those that haven’t done this before: hit play and pause on both videos to get them streaming. Turn down the volume on the base jumpers to zero. Then when you’ve got enough streaming going on, hit play on both, and fullscreen the base jumpers.

Note that in terms of content, both videos take about a minute to kick off properly, so if you’re impatient then jump to ~50s into each one first.

There. Much better!


Very surprised I never came across this one from John Adams before:

“It is more important that innocence be protected than it is that guilt be punished, for guilt and crimes are so frequent in this world that they cannot all be punished. But if innocence itself is brought to the bar and condemned, perhaps to die, then the citizen will say, “whether I do good or whether I do evil is immaterial, for innocence itself is no protection,” and if such an idea as that were to take hold in the mind of the citizen that would be the end of security whatsoever.”

Rather satisfyingly (in a TV Tropes kind of way) this general idea is filed under Blackstone’s Formulation.

Last Week’s Question – Nothing to Hide?
Last week I asked for tweetable responses to the argument, “If you have nothing to hide then you have nothing to fear”, and got an impressive range of responses.

Xuan somewhat flippantly shot back:

“I have nothing to hide but a lot to lose so piss off Big Brother”

Simon says “nothing to hide” is wrong because it

“…presupposes that the reason someone desire[s] privacy is to conceal a wrong. What if people want privacy for other reasons?”

This is similar to my own thinking, which is essentially that privacy as a notion is a counterargument in itself. Hence my own answers along the lines of:

“If you have nothing to hide, why do you have curtains?”

“If you have nothing to hide, you’re not representative of the majority”

Richard pointed out that at the peak of the Wikileaks hubbub, this tweet did the rounds:

“Dear government: as you keep telling us, if you’ve done nothing wrong, you’ve got nothing to fear #wikileaks”

On a similar note, Rik points out that this is a good time to quote Juvenal:

“Who watches the watchmen?”

This neatly digs out the hidden assumption of “nothing to hide”, which is that the people you might hide something from can themselves be relied upon to act on that information “correctly” (whatever that may mean). However, this argument is a double-edged sword. The strongest reading (as I see it) is that the very idea of watchmen hides a kind of Gödelian paradox (after all, who would watch the people watching the watchmen?). But if you interpret it more simply it suggests that the answer to bad surveillance is good surveillance.

Or put another way: it seems to suggest that problems with surveillance can be solved by adding more surveillance. Given that surveillance already has that feedback loop baked-in (if crimes take place out of sight of CCTV then naturally you solve this by having more CCTV), this counterargument might not actually help.

A more direct line of attack might be to use extreme examples of Watchmen we may not feel comfortable about, for which I suggest:

“In Orwell’s 1984, should Winston Smith have anything to fear from Big Brother?”

“Would you still have nothing to hide if an extremist party formed part of the ruling coalition?”

Finally, Adam has a different approach:

“Given enough information I can make anyone look guilty”

An idea we’ve seen in various political and journalistic thrillers is that everyone has something that you could expose to damage their reputation, but Adam’s argument takes this a step further. This also confronts the above mentioned feedback loop of increasing surveillance head-on. As Adam says:

As […] data on each person grows, so too does the scope for misuse, misinterpretion and misidentity. […] No individual fact could be incorrect, but they could be formed into a picture that is, as it is known that people look for facts that meet their beliefs, and with enough information this could be achieved an alarmingly high proportion of the time…

That’s my favourite answer so far, although it does need people to buy into some form of Blackstone’s formulation (see above John Adams quote). This will be an argument to refer back to over the coming years I suspect.

There’s much more to say on this, but that will have to wait for another blog post.


Things 22: Transplant Problem, Fantastic Contraption, Profile Pictures

(Originally sent August 2008)

This week’s… thing
Didn’t end up seeing any films last week, but I did end up getting my thesis bound for submission.

Next Week’s films
I’ll be watching the new X-Files movie.   6.8/10 | 32%

I’ll be trying to get a ticket for the preview of Hellboy II.   7.9/10 | 88%

I’ll be seeing The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor.   unrated | 11%


Last week we considered the ‘trolley problem’. If the people concerned are indistinguishable, then the vast majority of people choose to divert the trolley and kill one to save the many. (The few that disagree with this generally consider the action of diverting the trolley makes you culpable for the death, whereas not doing anything leaves you inculpable even though more people die).

This week it’s time for the follow up!

A brilliant transplant surgeon has five patients, each in need of a different organ, each of whom will die without that organ. Unfortunately, there are no organs available to perform any of these five transplant operations. A healthy young traveller, just passing through the city the doctor works in, comes in for a routine checkup. In the course of doing the checkup, the doctor discovers that his organs are compatible with all five of his dying patients. Suppose further that if the young man were to disappear, no one would suspect the doctor.

In the doctor’s place, would you kill the young man to save the five, or spare him and let the five die?

Overheard conversation as I got on the tube the other day:

Man: “Go on then, what did you do that was really evil.”
Woman: “Well, I killed my daughter.”
Man: “Yeah, I guess that is pretty evil.”
[slightly awkward pause]
Woman: “I also killed two other main characters.”

A brilliant game to test your inventiveness:

Usually I filter out the things that I know will only really appeal to me and are unlikely to be of interest to anyone else. But I enjoyed this video so much I had to share it anyway.

It’s a great example of today’s collaborative culture – the videogame music from Final Fantasy 4 was originally composed by one guy, then some other (Japanese) nutters remade it with lyrics for the bad guys that the music was the theme for, then some artist made a video version using their illustrations to illustrate the song, then someone else took that and added English subtitles! Copyright law has a lot of catching up to do.

A picture
PhD comics came up with this insightful segmentation of profile pictures.