Tag Archives: music

Things February 2018: YouTube series, Poor estimation, The Patriarchy

The patriarchal explanation

The Octonauts is a charming kids TV series, based on the picture books of the same name (referenced in the Things Kids Special in 2013). It features eight anthropomorphised animals on a Star-Trek-style mission to explore the ocean and encounter the Interesting Sea Creature of the Week.

I noticed that the same three (male) characters go on exploratory missions almost every episode, even when other (female) characters would be better qualified for the task at hand, which seemed odd for an otherwise progressive kids TV series. Looking for people who agreed with me on the internet, as you do, I stumbled upon this excellent mumsnet exchange:

Bumperlicious:  Why are the girls relegated to mere sidekicks & not even mentioned in the opening titles? Is because they’re girls or because they’re both [foreign]?

TunipTheHollowVegemalLantern:  It is because of the patriarchy.

This turns out to be a highly versatile response which you can use to answer many questions about modern culture! It also has the benefit of sounding like a joke, while also frequently being accurate.

YouTube series of note

The Vox ‘Earworm‘ series by Estelle Caswell digs into various aspects of music, including a few really interesting pieces on long-term musical trends in the US pop charts. I particularly enjoyed the episodes on the triplet flow in rap, the fade-out, and especially repetition:

The ‘Fictional Fight Commentary‘ series does exactly what you hope: pitch-perfect delivery from Auralnauts creators Craven and Zak commenting on various famous fight scenes from movies. My personal favourite is the Revenge of the Sith Anakin/Obi-wan fight, but the Batman vs. Superman one is also great.

(Incidentally, Auralnauts had the dubious honour of having a video in which they removed the original music track get flagged as copyright infringing – for using the music track they removed, by the copyright holders of the song that was no longer present. Also incidentally, they made the generic film trailer I put in the last Things).

Every Frame A Painting was an incredible series of videos about movies and I’m amazed I haven’t featured it in Things before. It’s narrated by Tony Zhou, jointly written and edited with Taylor Ramos – although this latter part was only revealed in the post-mortem, the reasons explained in more detail by Taylor herself here, but more tersely one can say It Is Because Of The Patriarchy.

Aiming for quality over quantity, all 28 EFAP videos are brilliant, but as you have to start somewhere, I particularly recommend Jackie Chan – How to Do Action Comedy, The Spielberg Oner, and The Marvel Symphonic Universe.

Terrorism using the media as a megaphone

As I understand it, the aim of a regular terrorist is to create terror disproportionate to the amount of power they actually have. So perhaps the media response to these incidents should be a little more tempered, since that attention is exactly how terrorists gain a disproportionate response. I’m not sure there’s any good way to balance that though, especially with social media doing much of the amplification.

Still, I found it interesting that this quite wide-ranging study found a correlation between media coverage and subsequent violent incidents.

 “one additional New York Times article about an attack in a particular country increased the number of ensuing attacks in the same country by between 11% and 15%”

Poor estimation as a feature, not a bug

When doing indoor rock-climbing, or during my brief dalliance with extremely amateur parkour, I noticed that I and others tend to underestimate what we can physically achieve. We could jump further than we thought; we could stretch to reach a hand-hold that seemed too far; we could gain greater lift by running and kicking off a wall than we expected, and so on.

Now, I know that “evolutionary psychology” theories are usually untestable and often useless, simply servicing to reinforce one’s existing prejudices. Still, it’s easy to imagine that this physical capability bias (which I haven’t found named, but presumably must be) would work as a survival trait: creatures that overestimated their ability to achieve physical feats would presumably be at a mortal disadvantage in the long run.

This led me to wonder about another tremendously strong bias we have that runs the other way: the Planning Fallacy, best summed up by Hofstadter’s Law:

It always takes longer than you expect, even when you take into account Hofstadter’s Law. — Douglas Hofstadter

Superficially this bias seems like it should be a disadvantage. However, since many humans can benefit from one human’s work, perhaps we collectively benefit, as people work on things (and eventually, sometimes, complete them) that they wouldn’t have tried if they had correctly anticipated how long it would take, to society’s benefit.

It’s a trivial example, but I naively thought I could tell a particular story in a comic at one page a week in two years; it ended up taking more like seven. I probably wouldn’t have started it if I had realised that, but I’m glad that I did it, and now people – or at least, fans of two particular video games from 1999 – benefit from it.

Bitcoin

When I first read about Bitcoin, I figured it was a cute idea but it didn’t scale, so couldn’t really work as an alternative global currency. Some of the scaling issues are now becoming apparent. As is so often the case, Charlie Stross has an insightful take on the matter.

Unendurable Line

I found this video quite satisfying:

Marie Kondo

In an age of abundance, we now routinely run into the problem of having too many things, and things like loss aversion make it difficult for us to deal with the issue. This scene from Labyrinth (1986) makes a lot more sense to me now than it did as a child:

Clare introduced me to a comic that summarised the ‘KonMari’ method (by Marie Kondo) of dealing with clutter. It isn’t really one method so much as a series of ideas and principles to apply to the task of decluttering. I think it’s particularly effective because it intuitively gets at some of the biases that make this a difficult problem. Here’s a few choice principles:

  • Don’t sort things by location, sort by type. Get all your (say) books in one place, then figure out what to do with them.
  • Don’t think about ‘what can I throw out’. Think about ‘what should I keep’. Only keep things that ‘spark joy’.
  • Don’t buy more storage units. This is sort-of tidying up, but isn’t decluttering. It’s just a way of getting the clutter out of your sight.
  • The correct time to read a book is when it’s you just acquired it. If you have many books you have not read for years, let them go. When it’s time to read one, you can easily get it again.

Most deeply, Marie Kondo observes that a lot of useless clutter takes us out of the present moment: we over-attach to the past with belongings that are no longer useful to us, and we over-attach to a theoretical future version of ourselves by keeping things we aspire to use but never will.

This echoes a message from the amazing show The Encounter (recommended to me by Tarim), in which a climactic insight is that “objects hold us stuck in time”.

There’s a KonMari method book or alternatively a comic version.

[This just in, thanks to Anisa – there’s going to be a Marie Kondo Netflix series – T.M. 15/2/18]

Emergent Stop Motion

Like a more accessible version of Thomas Sauvin / Lei Lei’s short film Recycled, Oliver KMIA’s ‘Instravel’ compiles recurring patterns in Instagram holiday photos to create stop-motion-style animation:

- Transmission finally ends

Things September 2017 – Roads, Fish, DJ Shadow

Road Diet

If expanding or adding roads induces more people to drive and so creates worse overall flow, does it follow that reducing or removing roads could improve it? In some cases, yes. (Incidentally, that’s on Kottke.org, which you should definitely follow if you like Things, since it’s the same sort of idea but better).

Up All Night

Beck’s recent music video directed by Canada reminds me of what was (for me) the golden age of music videos, with a simple conceit, intriguing editing and strong visual metaphor, all well executed. I also like the way the choice of frame for the video thumbnail sets expectations:

If you want to know about Numbers

Via Clare, there is a Wikipedia article for the number 1001, which is nice, but does raise certain questions. Fortunately, some of those questions can be answered in the ambitiously-titled article List of Numbers.

Death and Social Media

As Facebook continues to execute its global man-in-the-middle manipulation/monetisation of social interaction, it unsurprisingly runs into some very difficult territory. Reading their blog series on these topics, I’m actually quite impressed with their approach to social media mortality, and was very interested to read how they balance their policy on hate speech.

Generic Film Trailer

With Inception’s percussive brass sound slotting in alongside plenty of other tropes, witness a surprisingly compelling and fully generic trailer:

Would you Rather be a Fish?

Laurie Anderson’s song “Monkey’s Paw” has plenty of strange memorable phrases, but one stayed with me over the years: “Would you like to be… a fish?” The video embedded below is edited from relevant shots from the Terminator TV series, so don’t watch if you’re averse to cyborg gore:

In Jim Jarmusch’s Paterson (2016), the strange power of the phrase is explicitly noted in a poem:

… except of course he was referencing the song “Swinging on a Star”, which I assume first coined the phrase:

I rather like the idea that much as I was struck by Anderson’s aquatic question, she herself must have been similarly struck by it in Swinging on a Star, as were Jim Jarmusch (writer-director of Paterson) and/or Ron Padgett (poet for the film). All of which makes it all the more tragic that (via Clare) the opening of late 80’s kids series Out of This World reworked the lyrics to “Swinging on a Star” to present the dilemma of aliens choosing to live as humans on earth, but singularly failed to suggest the fish alternative.

What is it that makes a short phrase like this stand out? I’m reminded of Admiral Ackbar observing “It’s a trap!’ in Return of the Jedi, a far more banal turn of phrase which nonetheless gathered enough pop culture awareness that you can make a comic like this, and people will track down the original voice actor and get him to deliver the line eight different ways 33 years later and get 36,000 YouTube views as a result.

Mind you, Star Wars is the kind of overblown phenomenon that has entire phalanxes of fans dress like an obscure background character who happened to be carrying an odd-looking prop, so may not be the most reliable of reference points.

Find, Share, Rewind

DJ Shadow goes long on both the ‘D’ and ‘J’ elements, shooting to fame in 1996 with his debut album Endtroducing, possibly the first album composed entirely from samples, which he drew from his extensive and ever-growing vinyl collection. If you’re not familiar, the result is a lot more interesting than one might suppose.

DJ Shadow in his natural habitat

More than most artists, while he moves on musically, much of his fan base clings to the past. In a moment I expect is repeated often, at his recent gig in Brighton when he announced he would play “some old stuff and some new stuff” a member of the crowd shouted “No! Artistic stasis or death!”

Kind of. I mean, they actually just shouted “Old stuff!” but we all knew what they meant.

Anyway, the reason I bring up DJ Shadow is that he has (had?) a monthly 2-hour slot on KCRW to present some of his favourite music, and if you enjoy best-radio-station-in-the-world Fip, you might also like this, as it is similarly diverse and intriguing. There are four episodes up so you have an interesting eight hours ahead of you, if you choose to brave that path. Admittedly it starts at the less accessible end, but skip ahead in 15 minute increments for each major section if industrial electronic drone isn’t for you and you’d rather get to the Jefferson Airplane section.

Prince of Darkness (1987)

Things trivia postscript
Endtroducing’s brief ‘Transmission’ tracks (“You are receiving this broadcast as a dream”) – which I later found are sampled from the film Prince of Darkness (1987), a horror film just as mysterious and unnerving as the samples imply – are the reason I end Things posts like this:

- Transmission ends

Things August 2017: Archive Adventures – part 2

Last time I shared the first half of the exciting archive of historic unused Things. In this second half, I’ll cover music, games, writing, and some data visualisation. Enjoy!

Video/Audio

I was collecting examples of music where I felt the production process was the main contributor to the quality of the song (rather than the songwriting or performance), examples being Britney Spears – Toxic, Mark Ronson – God Put a Smile on Your Face, and the Space Channel 5 theme tune. Then I wondered if actually I just like crisp brass and distorted orchestral sounds, and have no ear for production at all, so wasn’t sure whether I could meaningfully comment. But listen to those songs as a set and see what you think!

Putting a record of important sounds from earth in a spacecraft and shooting it out of the solar system is pretty speculative (although I’d argue we don’t know enough about the parameters in the Drake equation or the full potential of technology in this universe to know just how speculative) – but is also a profoundly optimistic and beautiful act, so I’m really glad we did it.

Some trivia that hilariously undermines the beauty of the gesture: EMI refused permission for The Beatles’ “Here Comes the Sun” to be included; and the engravings showing what humans look like (naked) were actually censored and therefore inaccurate.

Copyright issues have always made it challenging to listen to the full Voyager track listing on earth, but the copyright-subverting hydra that is YouTube solves this problem, and I highly recommend making time to appreciate the playlist.

And this just in, with a title that sets expectations perfectly, another candidate for music-to-share-with-the-galaxy: Duel of the Fates on Trombones

Games

I previously wrote about game-maker Jason Rohrer in Things 121 (specifically on Chain World, a game intended to become a religion). In 2014 he released The Castle Doctrine, a game about gun-ownership through the medium of PvP house-security design and burglary. Players design a secure ‘house’, with the restriction that it must be possible to break into without tools; they then try to break into other player’s houses to steal loot, and then store that loot in their own house and hope their design keeps other thieves out. Total loot owned is public, so a nice feedback loop emerges where a more successful player will attract more burglary attempts.

The challenge for such a game design is you need to come up with creative opportunities and restrictions that will emergently lead to players creating a huge range of fascinating house-designs. I particularly enjoyed the systems-design reasoning at work in Rohrer’s post on some of the design changes he had to make in response to players converging on clever (but boring) solutions.

In mobile games, the mind-bogglingly successful Clash of Clans (and its many clones) operates on a similar basis with (very) light real-time-strategy gameplay, but the strategic variety seems ultimately quite weak. I’m more impressed by King of Thieves, also operating on the same idea but with single-screen platformer gameplay. It’s free, so if that sounds at all interesting you should check it out (on iOS and Android). Unfortunately the late-game becomes about pixel-perfect jump timing which is a bit less fun.

Self-improvement

I can’t remember what I was thinking when I added this link, but perhaps that in itself is telling: Kottke’s extract from an Adam Phillips interview, “The need not to know yourself“.

I suspect that procrastination is a challenge for a large number of people, and found that Quora has a collection of highly upvoted answers. I personally found the best approach is a mixed strategy: trying lots of things in sequence. So this is a good place to go to find lots of ideas.

Writing, Data Visualisation, Everything Else

A good long read is, these days, the closest I get to the escapism of a good novel: a chance to inhabit and explore another world-view. If you’re the same, you’ll probably enjoy this long article on novels, tragedy, comedy, and religion on two levels. Sample quotes:

“the invention of the novel privatised myth, because the novel, invented after Aristotle, did not have a holy book. The novelist was on his own. Sometimes he’s even a she. There were no rules.”

“As they became professional, writers began to write about writers. As they became academicised, writers began to write about writing.”

“You may think that to praise The Simpsons at the expense of Henry James makes me a barbarian. Well, it does, but I’m a very cultured barbarian. The literary novel has gone late Roman. It needs the barbarians.”

There was an article about a trend online to use “?” where formal writing used a hyphen, for example:

“The greatest pleasure of all – the categorisation of minutiae.”
“The greatest pleasure of all? The categorisation of minutiae.”

I felt that captured something I’d seen and been annoyed by, and figured I would collect some examples. I guess shortly after that I just started to accept it and didn’t collect anything, and then couldn’t find the original link, leaving this a bit of a non-thing. Although I think the fact I abandoned it is at least somewhat interesting.

Unremembered by present me, and unexplained by past me, the Things archive includes a link to the Tableau product support page.

Here are some fascinating maps on the distribution of blood types.

And finally, a superb example of giving insight into long-term trends using well-designed data visualisation: The Great Prosperity (1947-79) and The Great Regression (1980-2009)


(Click for full version)

- Transmission finally ends

Things July 2017: Archive Adventures – part 1

In November, Things will be 10 years old. Since the beginning, I’ve collected an archive of interesting things, and at various intervals then created Things out of that archive. I tend to collect slightly more things than I publish, so the archive has grown. Rather than cull it, I’m going to just put them all out in two big catch-up editions. In this edition: Stories, Technology, Imagery, and all the Puzzles. This is going to be intense!

This Just In

Before I get to the archive, a couple of recent things.

Damien Henry’s video for Steve Reich’s “Music for 18 Musicians” makes excellent use of machine learning for art. Using video shot from a moving train, an algorithm learns how to predict what the next frame will look like. Every 20s into the video the amount of learning used increases. The result is fascinating, and perfectly complements the music. You can skip through the video to get an idea of the effect, but it’s best played in full!

There is an awkward vein of humour in which comedians interview (often) unsuspecting subject-matter experts in a non-serious manner (Philomena Cunk interviewing Brian Cox is one I don’t mind so much). Superficially, Werner Herzog sometimes takes a similar approach in his documentaries (noted in Things 118 in 2012, “Please describe an encounter with a squirrel”), but there is a hidden earnestness behind his questions. If you’ve never seen any of his documentaries, this excellent short clip on penguins shows you what you’re missing.

Stories

I think via Richard L, here’s an interesting piece on Plots not involving conflict.

In some stories/fables/myths the inciting incident or key point of drama is a character attempting to do something different to normal. In old stories, the character often fails and is punished, the moral being “know your place” (for example, the crow that tries to sing and in so doing drops a piece of cheese). In more modern stories, the character often succeeds and is rewarded. Is that generalisation true though? And what does it mean? I was going to collect examples of each and try to see a pattern, but never ended up doing that, so I’ll just leave it here as an unfinished thought.

The Cosmology of Serialised Television is an essay by David Auerbach which categorises long-running TV fiction by cosmological universe types: Steady State, Expansionary, Big Crunch. I didn’t find it particularly useful in terms of identifying solutions to the intrinsic storytelling problems of the medium, or even uncovering hidden gems (just the expected “Everything is terrible except for The Wire and Babylon 5“).

Still, it’s a lot of fun to read and nod along to, with some great terse summaries along the way, for example:

“So comics evolved by directing creative effort away from any moments of quality and toward large-scale creative bankruptcy”

See Maris Wicks’ 16-panel summary of Kitty Pride’s relationship with Colossus (penultimate comic in this post) for a great example of this.

Choose Your Own Adventure

One of my favourite kind of stories is any subversion of the “Choose your own adventure” format. Previously on Things I’ve linked to Luke Surl’s perfectly terse ‘Free Will‘ page. As an implied CYOA, this previously-linked Beaver and Steve comic also remains a classic.

The “Prog 2012″ issue of 2000AD featured a story called “Choose your own Xmas”, and subverts the format while also shattering the 4th wall. It’s completely brilliant but isn’t online so you’ll just have to trust me and buy or borrow it.

Viviane Schwarz also subverted the format beautifully to convey what it’s like to suffer from anxiety.

Working within the extraordinarily tight constraints of having a fixed panel and art layout, Ryan North still found a way to make a CYOA version of Dinosaur Comics.

Save The Date (recommended to me by Tarim and Richard L, available for free on Windows, Mac or Linux) leverages the Ren’Py ‘visual novel’ engine in a rather clever way, and if you’re interested in games and storytelling, have 30-60 minutes to spare, and can tolerate an apparently high rate of failure, you should give it a go. It could perhaps have delivered its message more elegantly at the “end”.

Also via Richard L, Trapped In Time (pdf) is a nice twist on the traditional choose-your-own-adventure format that leverages the format in a few interesting ways I’ve not seen before, and actually works very well as a pdf!

And I should mention this just in – browser-based interactive time travel fiction, One Night in Skegness, by Matheson Marcault (Holly Gramazio and Sophie Sampson). More time travel, but in a more relaxed way.

Technology

Perhaps surprisingly, a link about technology that sat in my backlog for 5 years has become more interesting with age. John B recommended the article, in which Alexis Madrigal laments that (in 2012), internet startups are just retreading the same ground and no longer promise to revolutionise our lives. John also pointed out the comment below the article by Urgelt (comment link doesn’t seem to work, wait for comments to load, which they often don’t, then find ‘Urgelt’ in the page). Urgelt more precisely categorises startups into those that grow the economy vs those that just take market share from existing businesses, and the issue is that most startups are falling into the latter category.

Both make a very interesting read 5 years further on, leading one to ask: has anything changed since then? Two trends jump to mind.

The Gig-economy-style startups (Uber, Deliveroo, AirBnB) suggest major changes, but might not actually scale. Uber charges around half of the true cost, subsidising the rest in a bid to achieve market dominance when driverless cars arrive; Deliveroo similarly rides an unsustainable cost/charge balance for much the same reason; only AirBnB arguably doesn’t fit into this category as the market sets the price.

Crowdfunding seems to be a more impressive development. In 2012, Kickstarter was just turning the corner, and Patreon is now in the ascendancy. From artists/game-makers that I follow, these services genuinely seem to be creating viable revenue-streams that were not previously available, to the benefit of culture in general. For example, Captain Disillusion (referenced in Things March 2015 and Things 17) was never mass-market enough for ad-revenue to be viable, but now raises sufficient money from Patreon to work on his videos pretty much full time.

In more “modern life is terrible” news, here’s an article from Cracked in late 2013 that is really just an enjoyably angry and sarcastic rant about clickbait content-farming. I remember at the time thinking that, if nothing else, the clickbait headline style would have to change as humans will fall for anything once, or maybe a hundred times, but eventually will develop a sort of semiotic herd-immunity to these well-dressed empty promises. Four years on… have things changed? Well, if nothing else, Facebook is at least attempting to deprioritise these sorts of headlines; more specifically, headlines that withhold key information, and headlines that senselessly exaggerate the content.

Imagery and Comics

Wondermark on the thought-experiment of money having a continuity rather than just being an abstract quantity of value. Wet owlsInopportunely placed stickers. Bikes recreated (digitally) from drawings. The Door to Hell: “They set the hole on fire, expecting it to burn itself out of fuel in a few days. Now, some 42 years later, it is still burning”.

Puzzles/Questions

Collecting all unused puzzles here is probably too intense, but I quite like that about it, so I’m doing it anyway.

1) 2D News

Sci/tech news is often quite one-dimensional, revealing a single scientific discovery or technological advancement at a time. As a thought-experiment, try combining two or more such stories from the past year into something amazing. For example, advances in drone technology + advances in ‘invisibility cloaks’ = army of invisible drones. Finding loads of other planets + anything = awesome.

2) Put Put boat

A toy Put Put boat has an amazingly simple heat engine, which you may recognise from the film Ponyo. A candle heats a small boiler; some water in the boiler vaporises but cannot escape, generating pressure that pushes the remaining water out a pipe. The momentum of the water keeps it pushing out, leaving the inside of the boiler with low air pressure. As a result, water then rushes back in, and the process repeats. Water thus repeatedly enters and exits a pipe pointed out the back of the boat, which then travels forward in a halting manner. The puzzle is this: why does the boat actually move forward, instead of just moving back and forth, given water is just going in and out?

3) Bernoulli vs the Train Window

In a similar vein to the Put Put boat, we have the Bernoulli train window problem. Bernoulli’s principle roughly states that faster moving air acts as if it has lower pressure. The classic demonstration is to hold a piece of A4 paper by one end in front of your chin so it droops downwards away from you; by blowing over the top, the pressure is reduced, and the piece of paper rises up due to the higher pressure underneath it.

A similar effect could be seen in an old-fashioned push-to-close narrow train window. If such a window was open and the train entered a tunnel, the window would slam shut. Or, would a shut one blow open? Depending on whether you take the perspective of the tunnel or the train, the faster moving air is on one side of the window or it is on the other. So which way does the window go?

4) Catbird seat

The Catbird seat is one of those puzzles I like because you can solve it with drawings and trigonometry, and then you can solve it better with simpler drawings and simpler trigonometry, and then you wonder if you can solve it in some kind of purely intuitive manner.

5) Shape of a Harp

When plucked, a longer taut string makes a deeper note. A harp has progressively longer strings to cover a range of notes. However, even though the interval between each note is the same, the length of the strings does not change linearly, or even following a simple curve, but rather an S-curve. Why is that? I thought this question might have a nice intuitive solution that could be reached by reason rather than by physics, but the answer is a bit more disatisfying, so this question remained in my backlog unasked. If you don’t want to figure it out (and my personal opinion is it’s not that interesting to do so), you can read about it here, although you’ll need the internet archive page for the harp citation.


Not a harp, but the principle is the same

- Transmission finally ends