Things November 2015: Movie ratings, Pain, Empathy and Expathy

Movie Rating Distribution

Walt Hickey was curious about the ratings on Fandango (which are clearly suspect), but in his investigation he brought together this nice collection of rating distribution data:

Just as I found when considering the ratings of animated movies, IMDB ratings tend to span around 5.5 to 8.3, whereas Rotten Tomatoes actually spans 0% to 100%.

Check out the whole thing to discover some of Fandango’s shenanigans.

Pain is Really Strange

For excellent research and presentation of a complex and important topic, I highly recommend the comic Pain is Really Strange by Steve Haines and illustrated by Sophie Standing:

Copyright © Steve Haines 2015, Illustrations Copyright © Sophie Standing 2015, reproduced by permission of Jessica Kingsley Publishers

The key insight is that pain (and particularly chronic pain) does not correlate reliably with tissue damage, with psychological / neurological factors also playing a huge part. I was particularly interested to find out that the term “slipped disc” is not only innaccurate, but can actually cause a patient to experience more pain than if a more benevolent-sounding term is used!

I give this the Thing of the Month award. Go check it out on the publisher’s site or put it on a Christmas wishlist at Amazon.

(Also just out, Trauma is Really Strange, which I assume to be similarly good).

Mobile Game: Horizon Chase

If you enjoyed any racing games from the 80s or early 90s, Horizon Chase is a brilliant throwback to the gameplay of that era. You can buy it on iOS, or, in a fascinating nod towards the different store design that represents a whole other subject I’ll get to one of these days, you can get the first few levels for free before paying to unlock the rest on Android.

Three things to know:

  • Features fake driving physics, which is more fun than real driving physics! (I found the article about how they achieved this quite fascinating).
  • Your car has a slower acceleration but faster top speed than all the others! This means every race is about overtaking your way from last place to first, which is the most fun thing.
  • The soundtrack is chiptune-tastic and by Barry Leitch if that means anything to you.

Empathy vs. the Viral Straw Men

Empathy: Understanding the experience of others.

Othering: Explicitly or (more often) implicitly suggesting a group or particular person is somehow “different”, with intent to slightly turn the listener against that group/person.

These two concepts are often tied up with our tribe-like identities: when someone we consider to be “one of thus” says something, we tend to empathise; when someone from an opposing tribe says something, we consider them ‘Other’ and tend towards the opposite of empathy – I don’t see a good term for it but we could call it “expathy”.

The Daily Mail provides regular examples of this. News stories about people the paper wants us to feel sympathy for will emphasise the traits that align them with the presumed Mail readership’s tribal identity: atomic families, hard-workers, church-goers.  Stories that tilt the opposite way will make note of how their subjects differ from this group: single mums, people on benefits, followers of other religions or atheists. Describing a group of people as a “swarm” is an Othering technique.

As is often the case, it’s easier to see this mechanism at work in others than ourselves. A liberal encountering a conservative expressing their views on wealth redistribution might demonstrate expathy by assuming the conservative hates poor people, worships money, and is selfish – but the conservative may be none of those things, and genuinely believe that if policy reflected their views perfectly, everyone that truly “deserves” success would get it. (You can tell I’m a liberal and still can’t shake the expathy from the distancing quotation marks).

Similarly, a conservative encountering a liberal expressing their views on wealth redistribution demonstrates expathy when they assume the liberal is blind to real-world complications, and/or that they are some kind of Western-society-hating communist.

If you want to understand someone and possibly even try to change their mind, empathy rather than expathy seems a good place to start. I think this is what lies behind the quote:

Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that
– Martin Luther King, Jr

If you need more practical advice on how to do that, Daniel Dennett has it:

1. Attempt to re-express your target’s position so clearly, vividly and fairly that your target says: “Thanks, I wish I’d thought of putting it that way.”

2. List any points of agreement (especially if they are not matters of general or widespread agreement).

3. Mention anything you have learned from your target.

4. Only then are you permitted to say so much as a word of rebuttal or criticism.

I think this is particularly important as the tribe-shaping influence of social media means that content which mocks straw-man versions of opponents’ views goes viral but only serves to polarise us and silence meaningful debate.

Digital Culture update: Music Industry Seems Fine Actually

I’ve  been very curious to know the impact the internet has had on the music industry now that the dust has somewhat settled. More importantly, how are the actual musicians doing? John B sends in this NY Times article which does a wonderful job of rounding up the pertinent data (for the US at least), and finds that things are actually looking pretty good.

Things updates: Propellers and Music

Back in Things 80 (September 2010) I shared a surreal photo of a spinning propeller generated by the rolling shutter effect. Richard sends in a link to these lovely animations that make this process much clearer!

After discussing various ways music can be reworked last month, people continue to send in interesting examples.

Deb sends in a rare example of the ‘remix’ in which the lyrics are the only part that has been preserved, with Tom Basden’s version of Mamma Mia:

For my part, I realised I forgot one of my all-time favourites, The Apples’ jazzy instrumental take on Rage Against the Machine’s famous Christmas number 1, Killing in the Name:

Laurence points to the strange outlier that is the French version of the A-Team theme tune, complete with weird lyrics. He further provides an example concatenating as many examples of reworking as possible in a series with Hooked on a Feeling, which I paraphrase here:

  • The original is by B.J. Thomas
  • This was … somethinged … and had the ‘ooga chaka’s added by Blue Swede (This is the version that most people know from ‘Reservoir Dogs’ and ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’.)
  • The Blue Swede version was covered by David Hasselhoff
  • And the Hasselhoff version was relyriced by David A. Scott of Literal Video:

Is it possible to find a longer string, or one covering more types of rework?!

– Transmission finally ends


Things September 2015: The Sea, Song Covers, Weather Reporting, Alphabear

Comic – The Deep Ones

A few thematically related thoughts have been freaking me out quietly but insistently for many years: the idea that, when in the sea, you are in the same body of water as sharks and giant squid; the imagined sensation of floating somewhere in the sea and sensing something vast swimming just beneath your feet; the idea that the sea has not been thoroughly explored and that monsters may truly lurk in deep trenches. This short comic, “The Deep Ones” by Julia Gfrörer explores these ideas quite poetically and insightfully.



Music – Covers that that Trump Originals

Logistics note: reading through old editions of Things, about 50% of all YouTube videos I link to disappear after a couple of years. So I’m now including a link to a generic YouTube search that should work even if the one I chose has gone away.

While fully recognising that everything is subjective, especially music,  I hold that these covers are particularly notable.

Jose Gonzalez does “Hand On Your Heart”, sounds like he means it:
(In case of removed video, try this search)


In case you need reminding, here’s Kylie with the original:
(In case of removed video, try this search)


Similarly, Iron & Wine sings ‘Love Vigilantes’, a lovely and quite moving ballad about returning to family from war:
(In case of removed video, try this search)


That was New Order’s idea originally, but I’m just not as convinced by their version:
(In case of removed video, try this search)


Just in case it looks like I’m only into gentle acoustic covers, here’s something going the other way!

In Scott Pilgrim vs The World (a movie I will tell anyone that will listen is underrated right after I’ve tried to convince them to appreciate Speed Racer), Scott (Michael Cera) tries to impress Ramona (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) with a 30 second song he wrote about her:
(In case of removed video, try this search)

She tells him she can’t wait to hear it when it’s finished. That’s the joke.

The things is, this song is actually by Beck, which explains why it’s a surprisingly assured and satisfying chord progression – Beck contributed most of the original songs for the film. I like to imagine Beck saw this bit and thought “You know what, I will finish it” and came out with this:
(In case of removed video, try this search)


Weather-related newspaper headlines

(via Iain) I had wondered if there was a corollary to Betteridge’s law of headlines relating to the weather. I hadn’t noticed that the Daily Express was particularly fond of weather-related headlines, but quite brilliantly Scott Bryan compared a year of headlines against what actually transpired back in 2012. The post is no longer up but you can find it on the internet archive.


Libraries caught up with the future when I wasn’t looking

Back when people were getting excited about the advent of ebooks and digital audio books, I remember a lot of intense discussion about what this might mean for libraries.

Turns out that all the pieces came together, and you can now digitally borrow these things from your local library directly from your device, for free. (Perhaps more accurately, you’ve already paid for it with your taxes). I’ve been using the Overdrive app to do it and it’s really quite brilliant.

Two caveats. First, you very reasonably do have to join your local library in the first place to get an ID and PIN. Second, don’t be tempted to create an Overdrive account using Facebook, because if you later want to borrow an eBook and put it on a device that doesn’t run Overdrive, you’ll need to go through some icky business with ‘Adobe Digital Editions’ (because DRM), and that doesn’t work if you used Facebook.

On the topic of DRM, I’m still convinced it’s a terrible idea for digital purchases, but I think it’s pretty much essential to make this whole borrowing idea work, so I’m happy to accept it there.


Mobile games to try

Free-to-play mobile games are trying all sorts of strategies these days to find a business model that works (because straight paid on mobile sadly doesn’t). One model is to create a game that never really ends, is completely enjoyable without spending anything, and in which spending gains you a small advantage of some sort. These games don’t make a huge amount of money for the people that make them, and the flip side of that is that they can give you a lot of fun for very little money.

Alphabear is one such game. It’s a really lovely word-puzzle game with some nice strategy. There’s an ‘energy’ mechanic (you can only play a certain amount and need to wait for your ‘energy’ to come back), but you can buy ‘infinite honey’ which removes the energy thing entirely. So if you enjoy the game, you should definitely do that.

Breakneck is another, and takes the form of a twitchy high-speed sci-fi sort of endless runner, reminiscent of Wipeout. If your device is up to it, it’s a very polished experience at a ridiculously low price. (iOS only – sorry)

– Transmission ends


Things 132: Mobile games I recommend

I’m fascinated by the developments we’re seeing in mobile gaming, and am particularly interested in what sort of games we’ll see emerging as tablets become more mainstream and people figure out cool ways to use a touch interface.

I’ve spent the past few months trying out anything that sounded promising, particularly things that seem more suited to tablets than mobiles. Here are my favourite mobile games I’ve tried so far, split by business model, as that’s the first thing people want to know these days.


Games that you just buy

Star Command

Wikipedia, Official site
Platforms: iOS, Android; PC and Mac forthcoming apparently
Best experienced: On a tablet
Theme: Star Trek / Pixel art
Genre: Strategy
Original release date: May 2013

Shields are down. The enemy have teleported aboard and are making their way towards the engine room. The medical bay is on fire. But the enemy ship is weak. Do you keep your tactical officers on ship weapons, or peel some off to defend against the intruders? Do you send the engineers to repair the med-bay, or have them try to set up a sentry droid before the enemy gets to them?

If you think making those kind of decisions in a pixellated Star-Trek-like environment sounds like fun, then this game is for you. The dialogue is lightly amusing too, for example, here are three dialogue options to choose from after being hailed by some unintelligible penguins:

A playthrough took about 4-5 hours, which felt about right. There’s some extra things to do which add replayability but I haven’t touched them yet.


Super Hexagon

Wikipedia, Official site
Platforms: iOS, Windows, Mac, Android, Blackberry, Linux
Best experienced: On any mobile device
Theme: Geometry / Trippy
Genre: Twitch
Original release date: August 2012

You rotate a small triangle to avoid the ever-encroaching hexagonal walls. The walls move so fast that if you pause to make a conscious decision about which way to go, you die. The only way to last more than a few seconds is to train yourself to move instinctively, which is difficult, but gives a tremendous feeling of flow when you achieve it.

Difficulty modes are ‘Hard’, ‘Harder’ and ‘Hardest’, but progress will unlock harder modes. You get the idea.


Year Walk

Wikipedia, Official site
Platforms: iOS, Windows and Mac forthcoming apparently
Best experienced: On an iPad, with a friend
***Companion app***
(essential) (iOS)
Companion app best experienced: On a small iOS device, while you play the main game on an iPad
Theme: Swedish folklore
Genre: Spooky puzzle
Original release date: February 2013

Year Walking is a Swedish folkloric version of a Vision Quest: someone wishing to see the future isolates themselves and fasts for a day (commonly on December 31st), then walks to the church at midnight. The dream-like things they see as a result are interpreted as signs of the future.

This may or may not be real (quite pleasingly, the English page for it on Wikipedia has been deleted as an ‘obvious hoax’, while the Swedish version is present), but in any case it’s a lovely idea for a short, spooky little puzzle game, best played under the duvet at midnight.

The art style is very Jon ‘I want my hat back ‘ Klassen (but isn’t actually by him). This impressionistic trailer gives a good idea of the kind of atmosphere you can expect:

The experience is quite short (I would guess between 1 and 2 hours, depending on how quickly you figure things out), but is extremely atmospheric and polished, and felt well worth the money to me.


First bit free, buy the rest


Wikipedia, Official site
Platforms: Android, Playstation MobileiOS (not free!)
Theme: Anime Sci-Fi / Mostly circles
Genre: Rhythm Action
Original release date: January 2012
Best experienced: On a tablet

Circles appear. A line moves back and forth across the screen. You tap the circles when the line crosses them. If done correctly, you find you are tapping in time to the music, and this is very pleasing. Later on things get really crazy.

Well, that’s rhythm action for you. You get to try quite a lot for free (at least on Android), so if that remotely appeals then you should try it. Once you have the hang of it, you can then attempt to impress other people with your circle tapping skills. In my experience, they are actually quite impressed. They might have just been saying that, though.



Official site
Platforms: AndroidiOS (not free!)
Best experienced: On a tablet
Theme: Cute but dark / silhouette
Genre: Tap to flap
Original release date: March 2013

The one-button tap-to-flap genre seemed pretty simple to me until I played this. Powerups change your size (which alters your handling), coefficient of friction, speed, or the speed at which time passes. That’s fun, but it really gets going when you suddenly clone up to a swarm of 20 flappy things, all responding to your taps in sync (as per the screenshot above).

Essentially half of the game is free (on Android), so you should really just try it.


Free but you can buy things

Nimble Quest

Wikipedia, Official site
Platforms: iOS, Android, Ouya, PC/Mac/Linux (paid)
Theme: RPG / Pixel art
Genre: Snake
Original release date: March 2013
Best experienced: On a mobile

It’s really all there in theme, genre and screenshots: you control a conga-line ‘snake’ of RPG characters, attacking enemies and collecting power-ups. New characters are unlocked as you achieve higher levels, and each character can be upgraded with the coins you collect… it’s quite surprisingly compelling.

It’s the brave new world of free-to-play, so there’s a bunch of currency and in-app-purchase (IAP) going on. I recommend this approach:

  • Buy the red gems IAP. This gets you about 4x the amount of soft currency earned per game, and is a fair way to pay for the fun you get out of the game
  • Play the ‘arena’ mode. This updates once a day (I think), and if you do well enough you get a decent amount of the hard currency the following day
  • Once you get deeper into the game, spend hard currency (as you earn it) on the ‘speed’ powerup, because that makes early progress quicker, makes your attacks more concentrated, and the whole game becomes much more thrillingly twitchy.

Tim Mannveille tweets as @metatim, and previously raved about Smash Cops Heat for Android/iOS.


Things 35: Lovefilm, People of the Screen, Chicken Head

(Originally sent December 2008)

I joined LoveFilm last week, mainly so I would know what I was talking about when giving a presentation to them on what I think they should be doing. It turns out they already do a lot of what I had first thought of so I knew to leave that out, and during the presentation I found out that they are planning to do a lot of the stuff I thought of too.

In other words, they do a lot of stuff that I think is good, and are going to do more. My name is Tim Mannveille and I endorse this message.

My Lovefilm profile is here so you can see what I’m doing with the service, and here is my referral link that gives you a 1 month free trial and me a referral bonus!

So, I still don’t have time to see enough films for a Cineworld Unlimited card to be worth it, but the LoveFilm £3.99/month for 2 DVDs is about right. So this week I saw The City of Lost Children, by much the same team as Delicatessen and Amelie. It was visually incredible, inventive and dreamlike, as expected.

IMDb: 7.8/10
RT: 82%

Trailer viewable over at Lovefilm.

A link
While researching quite what is possible in terms of tracking mobile phones, I stumbled upon a bit of real life drama on Google Answers. “I’m trying to locate a friend who has gone missing and may be in a lot of trouble…”

A [long] Quote:
Kevin Kelly knows what he is talking about, and wrote an understated but amazing piece for the NY Times recently. A choice excerpt:

“When technology shifts, it bends the culture. Once, long ago, culture revolved around the spoken word. The oral skills of memorization, recitation and rhetoric instilled in societies a reverence for the past, the ambiguous, the ornate and the subjective.

Then, about 500 years ago, orality was overthrown by technology. […] The distribution-and-display device that we call printing instilled in society a reverence for precision (of black ink on white paper), an appreciation for linear logic (in a sentence), a passion for objectivity (of printed fact) and an allegiance to authority (via authors), whose truth was as fixed and final as a book. In the West, we became people of the book.

Now invention is again overthrowing the dominant media. A new distribution-and-display technology is nudging the book aside and catapulting images, and especially moving images, to the center of the culture. We are becoming people of the screen.”

A Video
Well, this week’s Things has been very serious so far, so it’s time for a video of someone moving a chicken around while the chicken holds its head incredibly still:

A Puzzle
Last week I asked people to guess why the search term ‘uncertainty’ showed such an odd annual trend. The most likely explanation seems to be students searching for Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle – if you put other terms students might be looking up into Google trends, you see the same annual trend cropping up. [Google Insights for Search also helps as it reveals what people tend to actually be looking for when searching for a given search term – T.M. 2/1/11]

This week, the question is: why do chickens keep their heads so still?

It still feels like I’m taking Things too seriously, so here’s an article with pictures of loos with the best views.