Tag Archives: movie

Things 118: Cindy & Biscuit, Tron Dance, Into The Abyss

Cindy and Biscuit is a comic by Dan White which consists of various short episodes, and the best way to communicate what sort of thing they’re about is probably just to show you this representative one-pager:

Cindy is of a character-type I find particularly inspiring: defiantly unbowed by the insanity the world presents her with, and generally willing and able to tackle that insanity head-on. You can read Cindy & Biscuit in The Snowman here, or just enjoy my favourite panel below, or go ahead and order the comic directly, or pick up Vol. 2 from Gosh! like I did. (And if you’re on the fence on whether or not to spring for it, read this much more detailed review).

This is a fantastic use of technology in combination with dance. It’s quite a slow build, so if you’re impatient just make sure you at least catch 1’12” to 2’37”.

Film / TV
Werner Herzog has been making documentaries in one form or another since 1969. I’ve only seen two of his more recent ones (Cave of Forgotten Dreams and most recently Into The Abyss), but the impression I’m forming is that these decades of experience must be the reason he’s able to elicit such insightful responses in interviews seemingly without effort and even while apparently willfully derailing the conversation along frivolous tangents.

The most striking example I’ve heard so far, which you can hear (but unfortunately not see) at the 2’34” mark in this Kermode & Mayo review of Into The Abyss, occurs when the death row pastor happens to mention seeing squirrels (and other animals) while unwinding at the golf course. This prompts Herzog to request “Please describe an encounter with a squirrel”, to which the pastor responds with an initially jovial anecdote that quite suddenly leads straight to the heart of his feelings about his role in executions.

You can watch the trailer for the film, but it doesn’t really do it justice:

There’s also a series of three 45-minute TV episodes (still viewable on 4oD at the time of writing) which I haven’t yet seen but will presumably be similarly insightful and gut-wrenching.

Such an elegant concept: Eirik Solheim extracted sequential vertical slices of  3,888 photos he took out of his window over the course of 2010, and composited them to produce one year in one image:

(You may recall a similar idea applied to video that I posted a short while ago, A History of the Sky).

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 http://store.xkcd.com ) [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.

Things 104: Power of Music, Misleading Impressions, Two Envelopes

The effect of music on the brain is a very interesting thing that varies tremendously by individual. Last year I discovered a track that has an incredibly powerful mood-altering effect on me: Olympians, by a band with a potentially offensive name. It took a couple of initial slightly bemused listens before it properly seeped into my brain, but now as soon as I hear this track, I feel unbelievably positive, and become filled with an absurd confidence.

Unfortunately I suspect the fact that this track is so resonant for me also suggests that it’s very specific, and it will seem really quite boring to most others. But I find it so amazing I just have to share it anyway. So first, here’s a short version with a video to slightly entertain you while you wonder what on earth I’m going on about:

And if you are so inclined, here’s the full length version:

Tim Link
I saw The Lion King in 3D at Edinburgh International Film Festival, and reviewed it here. The short version of my review would essentially be this:

Quote special: Misleading Impressions
Thanks to Last.fm recommendations I discovered Brian Transeau (BT)’s album This Binary Universe, which turns out to be a bit different to his other albums. As I listened to his back-catalogue I thought I detected an incredible sense of optimisim and positivity. When I later found Brian Transeau was on Twitter, I found this impression was entirely correct. Sample tweet:

5am and time for our first ever sunrise, father daughter bike ride. Today is already #WIN Good Morning!

My favourite musician is probably Jon Hopkins who I now listen to instead of any other Chill Out music since for me he somehow trumps pretty much the entire genre. He is behind some of the most relaxing and beautiful tracks I know, so I was curious to see what he was like on Twitter. The answer: actually a bit different. Brilliantly, this was the first Tweet of his that I read:

I wish one of James May’s Big Ideas was to FUCK OFF

Finally, moving away from music, I referenced Mitch Hedberg’s famous escalator line in my Lion King 3D review:

An escalator can never break – it can only become stairs.

Realising I was unfamiliar with his work, I ended up reading through his Wikiquote page, and found much to like, such as:

My belt holds up my pants and my pants have belt loops that hold up the belt. What the fuck’s really goin on down there? Who is the real hero?


When you go to a restaurant on the weekends and it’s busy they start a waiting list. They start calling out names, they say “Dufresne, party of two. Dufresne, party of two.” And if no one answers they’ll say their name again. “Dufresne, party of two, Dufresne, party of two.” But then if no one answers they’ll just go right on to the next name. “Bush, party of three.” Yeah, what happened to the Dufresnes? No one seems to give a shit. Who can eat at a time like this? People are missing! You fuckers are selfish. The Dufresnes are in someone’s trunk right now, with duct tape over their mouths. And they’re hungry. That’s a double whammy. Bush, search party of three, you can eat when you find the Dufresnes.

So after that I naturally looked him up on YouTube, and at that point discovered him to be completely different to what I had imagined:


Gone, try this one:

A lot of infographics annoy me, but I like the idea of bringing together the data that drives this one so much I don’t mind its shortcomings.

Puzzle – The Two Envelopes
I can’t believe I haven’t put this one in Things before.

In a standard abstract setting with no distracting details, you and another person are presented with two envelopes. One envelope contains some money (but you don’t know how much). The other envelope contains twice as much money. You get to select an envelope, and you get to keep however much money is in it. The other person gets the other envelope. There isn’t anything to go on, so you choose one of the envelopes for arbitrary reasons.

Before you get to open it, you are offered the chance to change your mind, with the following reasoning:

You don’t know how much money is in your chosen envelope, but for the sake of argument let’s say it’s £10. That means you either have the envelope with twice as much money (so the other contains £5) or you don’t (so the other must contain £20). So if you decide to swap, there’s a 50% chance you get that £5, and a 50% chance you end up with the £20. Since you currently have £10, that means there’s a 50% chance of effectively losing £5 and a 50% chance of gaining another £10. Imagine if the universe split into two at the moment you made that decision – one of you loses £5, the other gains £10, so on average you gain (£10 + (-£5) )/2 = £2.50. Since the average gain is positive, clearly that’s a gamble worth taking, and you should definitely swap.

This is of course a strange conclusion. You effectively chose an envelope at random, so how does swapping it improve your odds of getting more money? The paradox is even more stark if we consider the fact that the other person could be convinced to swap by exactly the same argument.

Previous Puzzle – Co-operating with yourself
Last time I asked how well you would get on with yourself.

Xuan said:

They say that people you dislike/hate are likely to be people who’s characteristics are most like yours. People are most critical of what they see in the mirror. My clone better not have the same taste in clothes.

Which reminded me of a problem the sci-fi stories don’t tend to go into – if there’s suddenly two of you, you’re going to need some more clothes, and one of you will probably have to find another job, and probably somewhere else to live. Marriages get complicated. Phil suggested David Gerrold’s time-travel sci fi story The Man Who Folded Himself for an in-depth dissection of this kind of problem.

Richard observed that he tends to like people with whom he shares attractive personality traits, and dislike those that share his negative personality traits, suggesting that the latter may be because they serve as a reminder of these aspects of himself. This potentially makes the question even harder to answer, although one might guess that a negative would trump a positive and ultimately lead to the kind of confrontations that usually crop up in sci-fi versions of this problem (and endorsing Xuan’s observation).

I think the question raised by The Man Who Folded Himself of co-operating with a version of yourself in the future is a clue to how we can actually ask this question of ourselves. In a very real sense, we really do choose how much to co-operate with our future selves every day: will you do a chore now, or will you force your future self to do it instead? Will you eat all of the cake, or will you save some for your future self? If you know how you generally answer those questions, I suggest this gives you an idea of how well you would get on with yourself.

In practical terms, just thinking of these kinds of questions in this framework makes me more likely to co-operate with my future self, which is probably a good thing. Well, I’m glad that my past self thinks that way, anyway.

Things 50: Portal, Legalising Street Racing, Supply and Demand

(Originally sent June 2009)

An unusually long multi-lunch-break-requiring Things in unintentional celebration of hitting 50…

Things blog update
My attempts at setting up two WordPress blogs from a single database failed. I will see if I can set up a second database instead for a Things blog, in between revising for my IDM exams.
[Ultimately, that’s exactly what I did. – T.M. 28/5/11]

Yesterday I saw Sam Raimi’s Drag Me To Hell. It was an extraordinary experience that is difficult to describe – imagine the kind of inventive unpleasantness that happens to Wile E. Coyote applied to supernatural horror, maintaining some of the comedy aspect, and you begin to get some idea. The trailer sets out the premise very clearly but dramatically underplays the scares:

IMDb rating: 8.2
Rotten Tomatoes aggregate: 95%

This week I finally got around to playing Portal, a short but brilliant game which, for me, achieved the astounding feat of living up to its own considerable hype. Even if you’re not a gamer, the trailer is worth checking out just to see how nifty it is:

If that doesn’t float your boat, here’s a video of a cat that jumps into and out of a tall box. 1’19” is where the best jumping starts happening:

In a fascinating case study for debates on the merits of legalising/criminalising things, police in Florida have been running legal street races in which, for $25, people can attempt to “Beat the Heat”. They claim that given this controlled and safer outlet, they have seen a drastic reduction in illegal street racing.

[Original link is broken, the story is repeated here though – metatim 28/5/11]

[Okay, that link broke too, try this one – metatim 03/08/15]

Gavin Potter, a leading entrant for the NetFlix Prize (see this wired article) said:

“The 20th century was about sorting out supply. The 21st is going to be about sorting out demand.”

In other words, by solving problems of supply (think of all the information/products/services available to you via the web), we create a new problem related to demand – how do we sort through all this stuff?

I saw this articulated in the supermarket last week. A child had clearly been sent to pick up some juice, but was just staring at the shelving three times his height stocked with perhaps a 100 variations on fruit juice. His father turned up and asked what was wrong, to which the child replied with palpable desperation: “I can’t find any fruit juice!”

Here is a lovely graph demonstrating the relationship between Star Trek‘s warp speeds and energy requirements:

On a side note, in Star Trek the ships generate a bubble of distorted space around the ship, which to an outside observer means the ship appears to elongate as it sets off at warp speed. In Star Wars the ships instead enter hyperspace (warning: no basis in science), a kind of parallel universe in which distances are shorter / the speed of light is faster, so no elongation occurs.

Criminally, warp elongation was added to ships entering hyperspace in the Star Wars special editions.

This Week’s Puzzle: Buttons
Why are buttons on clothes for males placed on the opposite side to buttons on clothes for females?

Last Week’s Puzzle: Newspaper Eyeball Value
Last week I asked (roughly speaking) why newspapers are complaining about the internet when many have successful online sites with ads alongside articles just as in the print versions. I received some detailed responses and there’s clearly a lot more research that could be done, but here’s some of the main points:

1) Actually the main newspapers in the UK seem to be perfectly fine, with stable or even growing circulation figures. As JB put it: “I think alarm bells are being rung by consumers that don’t like the net and shareholders with unreasonable expectations!”

A corollary – in a blog post that could desperately use some editing, an argument is made that the important part of a newspaper is not the news (a commodity) but the package and the curation, somewhat consistent with the Gavin Potter quote above.

2) Newspapers cost money to make and to buy. The website version costs a certain amount of money to make but scales much more cheaply, and is free to the consumer. Depending on the scale and margin of each branch, this will give very different results for any given newspaper.

3) Demographics. With TGI I can see that the median age of the most regular newspaper readers (top 2 quintiles) is about 17 years older than the median age of those that regularly visit newspaper websites. The rule of thumb is that who sees your ad has the strongest effect on how well it does (over and above the offer or creative itself). Still one would expect that better targetting leads to better results, and if anything the splitting up of the audience should make targetting easier and hence more profitable.

4) Visibility. Since people get web content for free, they have less invested in it, so are unlikely to read it as attentively (A study suggests people typically read 20% of the text on a web page). Online ads can be blocked, newspaper ads can sit around the house for some time, paper is still easier on the eye than screen, people are more likely to be multi-tasking online… and many other factors similar to this exist.

There are many other arguments and deeper points to be considered about the above, but I would want to be more sure of the data before claiming to have an answer. I may revisit this topic with a more detailed investigation at some point on my blog.