Things 64: Videoshop, Censorship, Shirky on Newspapers

(Originally sent February 2010, maybe)

The use of Photoshop to ‘enhance’ imagery of models is now well-known. I suspect the more sophisticated use of similar tools in videos is much less well-known.

Bonus video
This seems to be everyone’s favourite ad right now:

While walking somewhere on a route that takes you past a lot of cars, you have a great opportunity to memorise something that involves numbers/letters by using each numberplate as a quick test.

1) Numerical position of letter in the alphabet (A=1, Z=26, etc)

Come up with ways to remember each number/letter pair (e.g. 15 = O, think tennis), then try to come up with the numbers corresponding to each letter on the number plates you pass. This can come in handy when you need to come up with a PIN, or when you want to read a secret message in a movie (the majority of which seem to use this basic code).

2) Phonetic Alphabet / Morse Code / Semaphore / any other alphabet mapping

This one requires preparation. Print or write down the key, then try to learn it as you walk while testing yourself on each numberplate you pass.

This is a fun way to pass time walking (for people that find the same things fun as I do).

The puzzle is this: What other things could you teach yourself while walking somewhere?


Much has been written about the Newspapers vs Internet battle, but this (now year-old) article by Clay Shirky is the best I have read. Pretty much every paragraph contains a powerful, succinct insight into a complex aspect of the situation.

Some choice quotes:

“When a 14 year old kid can blow up your business in his spare time, not because he hates you but because he loves you, then you got a problem.”

“It makes increasingly less sense even to talk about a publishing industry, because the core problem publishing solves – the incredible difficulty, complexity, and expense of making something available to the public – has stopped being a problem.”

[On the print revolution of 1500] “That is what real revolutions are like. The old stuff gets broken faster than the new stuff is put in its place. The importance of any given experiment isn’t apparent at the moment it appears; big changes stall, small changes spread.”

Incidentally, my favourite experiment / small change right now is Flattr.


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.


Things 49: Galaxy Rising, Tube Time Visualisation, Back Flip Variation

(Originally sent May 2009)

Time lapse of the stars at night – be sure to watch to the end to see the Milky Way rising:

Galactic Center of Milky Way Rises over Texas Star Party from William Castleman on Vimeo.

A simplistic but interesting data visualisation showing travel times from and to different parts of the tube network – this explains why everything in London seems to be about 30 minutes away:

In a self-consciously long and disappointingly poorly argued article titled “In Defence of Distraction“, the following quote made reading it all worthwhile:

“Priorities are like arms: If you have more than two of them, they’re probably make-believe” – Merlin Mann

An animated gif (2MB) showing a fantastic variation on a back flip.

Puzzle: Newspaper eyeball value
We often hear that newspapers are in terminal decline and it’s all the internet’s fault. But much of a newspaper’s revenue comes from advertising, and many have created their own ad-supported websites, and many of these websites reach very large numbers of people. So they are losing eyeballs looking at print and gaining eyeballs looking at a screen, both of which will also see adverts. Why isn’t this helping?

(Perhaps more than other puzzles I have set in the past, there are many possible answers. Don’t hedge your bets – if you have multiple solutions, put them in order of importance! I’ll summarise the results and stick my own oar in next week.)