Tag Archives: puzzle

Things 129: Kids Special (Strange Hill High, Octonauts, The Phoenix)

People tend to assume children’s entertainment isn’t as good as it was when they were young, probably due to a three-pronged attack of rose-tinted nostalgia, the best shows being renewed (Sesame Street) or repeated (Bagpuss) so giving each new generation a sense of ownership over them, and poor curation for adults out of the current crop.

Recognising that this is a highly subjective enterprise, I’m going to pick out a few good examples of current kids fare in attempt to at least fix the latter. There’s even a kid-entertainment-based puzzle at the end.

TV Series with Puppets: Strange Hill High
I occasionally take a look at current children’s TV to see what sort of animation techniques are being used, and Strange Hill High caught my attention through its fascinating combination of designer-vinyl-toy-style puppets combined with CG mouth animation.

The premise is entirely encoded in the name so I won’t bother to elaborate on that. Most importantly, it actually makes me laugh a few times per episode, which can’t be said of many other TV series. To be fair, 90% of it is fairly standard kids ‘comedy’, but it’s sufficiently fast paced that I don’t mind sitting through that to get to the other 10%.

If you seek reassurance from known quantities, it also features the voice of Richard Ayoade (The IT Crowd), and the head of the writing team is Josh Weinstein (The Simpsons).

It’s on iPlayer right now (I recommend starting with 99 cool things to do with a time machine), and you can start to get a bit of a flavour (though not really enough) from the opening few minutes:

Picture Books: Octonauts
Again, I first engaged with this franchise through the graphical design: I was impressed by the stylishness of their bath toys. It turns out there’s a whole CG animated series, which is quite good (mostly due to the use of regional accents), but it all started with a series of charmingly whimsical picture books. Here’s a few snippets to give you an idea:

Decoding the language of a sad fish:

Pictures that glow in the dark (from this book), which it turns out fascinate me just as much as when I was a kid:

Weekly comic: The Phoenix
Now I look back on it, more than anything The Beano looks like a primer on culture, mapping out the tropes and stereotypes of an idealised sort of pre-war age (vicars having tea, go-carts, hi-jinks, the threat of The Slipper), equipping the child with the reference points needed to navigate modern entertainment, while keeping said child entertained with a never-ending stream of speech bubbles that all end in exclamation marks (I only noticed this years later, and haven’t been able to read more than a few pages at once since).

The Phoenix is a modern kids comic that’s nothing like that. For one thing, it features work by James Turner, who I’ve featured in Things before (with this mind-bending 9-panel comic).

It’s also got a bunch of other surprisingly good stuff. Bunny vs Monkey by Jamie Smart features high-quality hijinks like this and ever so often will just go incredibly dark, like this:

For being simultaneously educational and entertaining, I’ve never seen better than Corpse Talk by Adam Murphy, in which he interviews the reanimated corpses of the “dead famous”, and doesn’t really sugar-coat things that much:

There’s wonderful art by Lorenzo in Long Gone Don:

Finally, ‘Professor Panels’ by Neill Cameron teaches kids to make their own comics, sometimes delightfully deconstructing the form, such as the episode in which a mecha-comic-creating-monkey starts to misfire when a banana is added to its workings:

If you’re interested, do check out their website, which has a free digital issue, a link to the iPad app, a starter pack you could buy, and a bunch of other good stuff.

Video: Tune-Yards My Country
I like this music, and the video is pretty good too. Be sure to stick around for the funky syncopated brass solo around 2’40”.

Puzzle: The Perfect Power-up Purchase Path
The LEGO console games are aimed at children, but provide some solid co-op entertainment for adults too, especially if you derive pleasure from smashing things and collecting coins – or in the LEGO-themed parlance of the game, ‘studs’.

In many (all?) of them, studs collected in the course of play can be used to purchase various upgrades. One such upgrade is the ‘x2′, which once bought, doubles the value of all the studs you subsequently collect – so a level where you might collect 100,000 studs will instead net you 200,000. There are other similar upgrades, like the ‘x4′, which multiplies by 4 – and they apply cumulatively, so if you have both x2 and x4, you get an 8 times multiplier, so that level would now net you 800,000 studs.

Naturally, the more powerful multipliers are more expensive to buy… but having a multiplier will help you save up for the others more quickly. Here’s a price list:

  • x2 = 1 million studs
  • x4 = 2m
  • x6 = 3m
  • x8 = 4m
  • x10 = 5m

So, the question naturally arises: if you want to eventually purchase all 5 of these multpliers, what order should you buy them in? (In case you were wondering, yes, they really do keep accumulating, so when you have them all you have a 2 x 4 x 6 x 8 x 10 = 3,840-times multiplier).

For the more mathematically inclined: what is the generic strategy for any multiplier series f and pricing series g? For the more game-design inclined: if you really wanted to encourage children to do some maths, how would you design the pricing for these multipliers? Alternatively, if you wanted to make the game as fun as possible, what multipliers and prices would you set?

Answer: Spoilers Sometimes Matter
Last time I asked if we could really believe research demonstrating that spoilers always improve enjoyment. The consensus seems pretty clear – even though ‘mystery’ and ‘twist ending’ stories were included in the research, it nonetheless seems very likely that there exist a few counter-example stories in which experiencing them unspoiled adds a tremendous amount to the experience. Since one can’t tell reliably tell which these are in advance, it seems wiser to err on the side of caution, and continue to avoid spoilers.

-Transmission Finally Ends

Things 124: Puzzles & Polaroids, Bond is now Bourne, Cooking Tips

OctopusFruitbat Game Write-upPuzzles & Polaroids at the British Museum
Clare and I were asked by Stubble & Glasses (who I also happen to work for) to design and run a company game event in a professional capacity, because some of them had enjoyed some of our earlier game events. So we formed a company called OctopusFruitbat, came up with something that combined puzzle-solving with creative instant-photo-taking, and it went a bit like this. If you’re ever looking for someone to come up with a similar event, of if you want advice on doing something yourself, please do get in touch!

Also don’t forget, this Friday I’ll be running Competitive Sandwich Making (which last year went like this) as part of the amazing all-weekend festival of gaming that is Hide&Seek’s Weekender at the Southbank Centre.

I’ve been nurturing the idea that films that follow the “They Made Him, Then Tried To Kill Him, Now He Must Fight Them” storyline are rising to such prominence that it must be some kind of Hero’s Journey for the modern age (I’m thinking Bourne, Hitman, Grosse Pointe Blank, Kill Bill, Blade, Ultraviolet…). The closest I could find on TV Tropes was Contract on the Hitman, which doesn’t quite nail it.

On metafilter, wuwei draws it out more explicitly by contrasting James Bond with Jason Bourne:

Who is our generation’s James Bond? Jason Bourne. He can’t trust his employer, who demanded ultimate loyalty and gave nothing in return. […] Bourne survives as a result of his high priced, specialized education. He can do things few people can do […] and like the modern, (sub)urban professional, Bourne had to mortgage his entire future to get that education. They took everything he had, and promised that if he gave himself up to the System, in return the System would take care of him. It turned out to be a lie.

(You can read the post in full here).

Is there any evidence that there really has been such a transition, that corporations are now violating the social contract in some way that they weren’t before? The three charts in this article do seem to actually endorse this idea – Corporate Profits Just Hit An All-Time High, Wages Just Hit An All-Time Low.

Here are some pictures with captions that have some amazing food-preparation tips, for example:

Previous PuzzleThe Shrinking Empires
Last time I asked why Empires seemed to be getting geographically smaller. I’ve actually asked this question when interviewing analysts, and get two kinds of answers.

The most common answer is that population density is increasing, and apparently human political power tends to stabilise around the 10m-50m range. For example, the Roman Empire was pretty big, but probably only covered ~60 million or so people, ten times fewer than those living in the same geographical area today (according to Citation Needed, but hey, it sounds about right).

A more interesting idea is that it has something to do with technology and inequality. I once heard it said that technology is not politically neutral – for example, Nuclear Power requires greater centralisation of government power than, say Wind Power – and I find this an appealing idea. Perhaps, for example, improved forms of communication give greater power to the people, who are then better able to resist tyrants with aspirations of empire-building through war.

But the more I dig into this, the more it starts to look like post-rationalisation, because I can imagine giving examples to prove the opposite. If everyone can manufacture guns cheaply, is it easier to terrify your populace with asymmetric power you can give your enforcers, or is “a well armed population the best defense against dictatorship”? If you improve transport, is it easier to avoid conscription, or easier to wage war? If you combine Moore’s law with the internet to create continuous public surveillance, do you end up creating a single global culture with no crime, or do you permanently enforce the power structures that exist at the point of implementation? Well, that’s a question for another day.

PuzzleGoogle Correlations
Google Correlate lets you find closely correlating Google search term trends, which sometimes gives silly results by coincidence, and sometimes reveals something very interesting. The question is, how many of these correlations can you explain?

Things 123: Game weekends, Puffins, Lilith, Abstract Animated GIFs

Events - Sandpit this very weekend (25th August), Weekender later (Fri 14th-Sun 16th September)
Hide & Seek are running one of their curated ‘Sandpit’ game events, taking place on Saturday and Sunday afternoons this weekend (25th and 26th August), unusually but awesomely located at the Natural History Museum. NHM page is here; a longer article about what’s happening can be found on Wired.

Then, from Friday 14th through to Sunday 16th September is Hide & Seek’s Weekender (facebook event here), mostly in the Clore Ballroom in that Royal Festival Hall place, this being as usual a whole festival of games, largely drawn from Sandpit events from the last two years.

This happens to include Competitive Sandwich Making on the Friday, which Clare and I will be running (here’s what happened last year when we ran first), this time featuring a secret rank beyond Earl of Sandwich, if people are competitive enough to discover it. There’s also lots of other amazing things happening, including two of my favourites: Die Gute Fabrik’s Johann Sebastien Joust and Viviane Schwarz’s Treasure Maze.

Tim Link - You’re In A Room
I finally wrote up the game Clare and I made for a more recent Sandpit: You’re In A Room, a sort of Whose Line Is It Anyway version of Knightmare; you can find out what on earth that means here.

Video – Puffin Webcam
In the exciting new world of putting webcam streams onto my TV for background entertainment, now that the Miranda’s Kittens feed is no longer live, I’ve had to find something else. It turns out there’s a whole range of great feeds available on explore.org, including a puffin cam.

Bonus videovia Clare while I was writing this
Dog swims with dolphins!

I recently wondered what really is the deal with the biblical (or is she?) character of Lilith, so I turned to Wikipedia on the subject, and found it fascinating – here’s just the section headings to give you an idea of the span of cultural records she appears in:

Mesopotamian mythology
Siegmund Hurwitz
In the Bible
Jewish tradition
Greco-Roman mythology
Arabic mythology
In Western literature
In modern occultism

The highlight for me was discovering that Lilith only appears once in the bible, and even then arguably so, in Isiah 34:

(13) [Edom] shall become an abode for jackals and a haunt for ostriches. (14) Wildcats shall meet with desert beasts, satyrs shall call to one another; There shall the lilith repose, and find for herself a place to rest. (15) There the hoot owl shall nest and lay eggs, hatch them out and gather them in her shadow; There shall the kites assemble, none shall be missing its mate. (16) Look in the book of the LORD and read: No one of these shall be lacking, For the mouth of the LORD has ordered it, and His spirit shall gather them there.

This makes “lilith” (in the bible at least) a hapax legomenon, a word only occurring once in the source and therefore challenging to decipher – given only this context, is she a demon, or just some kind of regular animal with sinister associations?

I also recommend reading this translation of Isiah 34 in full (it’s only ~400 words), as it’s use of hyperbole puts our modern tabloid newspapers and comment trolls to shame.

Pictures – Abstract Animated GIFs
I’ve seen some interesting abstract animated GIFs floating around the internet, and tracked them down to two artists: David Ope, and Mr Div. Here’s one example of each, and do click through to view the rest of their work:

David Ope:

Mr Div:

Puzzle - The shrinking empires
Here’s an unfortunately small version of a fascinating visualisation of world history (which we bought as a poster for the office from Stanfords, although they don’t seem to have them any more), with time running from left to right, and rough location on earth from top to bottom, with identifiable countries/kingdoms/empires marked out:

You can just about see the Roman Empire as a big blob of orange in the middle, the Ottoman Empire in blue towards the right, and the British Empire stretching wide in patches of red before retreating back home by the time we reach the right-hand side representing the present day.

Even at this scale, one pattern is apparent: they just don’t make empires as big as they used to. The closer we get to the present day, the smaller the tribal groups become. Why is this?

Things 120: Olly Moss, Benjamin Franklin Effect, A Difficult Person

Pictures – Olly Moss
Sometimes, as you browse the internets, you get a lovely moment in which you realise the person that made this cool thing you are looking at is the same person that made that other cool thing you remember from a while ago. You check out the rest of their work, and if you haven’t already, probably think about whether it’s worth following their output more closely.

I recently had that, except it turns out that Olly Moss is behind at least six different things (or sets of things) I had admired in the past:

Clearly, they share a certain graphical elegance and pop-culture-ouvre, and in the end the coincidence isn’t that huge, because he’s most likely closely followed by one of the aggregators of content that I browse, although I do recall seeing at least three from reasonably independent sources, so I remain quite amazed.

In short, do go have a browse of his projects. There’s lots more great stuff there.

LinkThe Benjamin Franklin Effect
Summed up nicely at the start:

The Misconception: You do nice things for the people you like and bad things to the people you hate.
The Truth: You grow to like people for whom you do nice things and hate people you harm.

It’s not a totally airtight case, but the article weaves anecdote with data nicely, the results are certainly very suggestive, and I recommend that you read the whole thing.

Quote – A Difficult Person
What I would like to do now is present you with a quote which, out of context, is rather dry and uninteresting, which would be a rather pointless thing to do, so instead I will first attempt to provide you with that context, in the hope that the quote will then seem to you just as striking and memorable as I found it to be. So bear with me here.

In Face of the Crime, or in the original German, Im Angesicht des Verbrechens, arguably better translated as “Face to Face with Crime” or perhaps “All up in the face of crime”, was described by a friend-of-a-friend as a kind of Berlin-based version of The Wire, and unfortunately it isn’t, as the characters are much less engaging, and the realism level far lower, even when one ignores the strange touches of what I guess people would call magical realism. That’s not to say that it’s bad, I actually found it rather interesting in its own strange way, it’s just a matter of setting one’s expectations accordingly.

If you think that sounds promising, and if you are the kind of person that avoids any spoiler for something you might later watch, no matter how small the detail or slim the chances of you watching it, then you may or may not choose to watch the trailer below (which is in German without subtitles and is somewhat NSFW) to further firm up your opinion, and based on that you may prefer to skip straight past this section to the puzzle bit below; but just so you know, as spoilers go, where 1 is inconsequential and 10 is The Sixth Sense, I’d put this at a 3.

So, we have someone I’ll describe as our hero, a straight-laced fellow who rarely betrays emotion, and is just trying to do the right thing, which is tough when you’re a cop in a crime drama with some back-story and Damoclean family tension hanging over you. One gets the impression that you’re supposed to root for him, on account of his moral rectitude, but it’s a little hard to do so, since he mostly does what is expected of him, and just occasionally does something else, but without getting remotely emotional about it.

Meanwhile, there is the heroine, who has a powerful vision of the hero’s face while swimming in a lake (and we know it’s a powerful vision because it gets repeated in the recap at the start of almost every episode), and whom it is strongly implied is destined to meet and presumably fall in love with said hero. She’s got a lot of common sense and a goodly amount of agency, but occasionally must put those things to one side in order to allow the plot to proceed, presumably because she realises that one way or another this will ineluctably lead to her destiny with the hero.

I don’t consider it much of a spoiler to say that they eventually meet, and we know and they know that something magical and destiny-related is happening, even though they’ve barely spoken to one another at this point, and despite the fact that the heroine seems to be all about hope and destiny while the hero is clearly married to his job and gives the impression that truly loving somebody would probably be beyond his emotional register.

I no longer remember the exact details, but there comes a slightly awkward conversational moment, and the heroine’s eyes flicker just slightly, and you can see that while she knows this is her chap-of-destiny, it might actually be that he’s not the best potential partner one could possibly imagine, and she suddenly says, quite bluntly (according to the subtitles):

Could it be that you are a difficult person?

Answer – Climb and Descent
Last week I asked if there was a single time on both the day of ascent and day of descent at which Joss Whedon could be found at the same altitude, given that he began both journeys at midday and ended them at midnight. A nice way to see that the answer is clearly yes is to imagine both journeys happening simultaneously, in which case there must clearly be a time at which the ascending Joss Whedon crosses paths with the descending one.

Perhaps more convincingly, you can draw the answer, as Richard describes:

Trivially proven by drawing two overlaid graphs of altitude vs time.  One line goes top-left to bottom-right, the other bottom-left to top-right.  Short of teleporter accidents, the lines have to cross at some point.  Read off the time and altitude to find where/when.

That was Level 1. Here comes Level 2:

Puzzle 2A – Temperature Pairs
Continuing the series of puzzles Tarim recently introduced me to…

Imagine a straight line that starts anywhere on the surface of the Earth, passes down through the centre of the planet, and comes back out on the opposite side. We take the air temperature at each end of the line. Now imagine rotating that line about the centre, describing a ~circular route of places on the earth’s surface that are all directly opposite one another, and we continuously record the air temperature of those places all the way around (and we do all of this, somehow, in a single moment in time).

(You might also like to imagine that this is all happening in some idealised abstract space where we don’t have to worry about the fact that this entails taking an infinite number of temperatures with infinite precision; I’m just painting the picture in this way because it’s the most convenient way I can think of).

The question (which you might have anticipated if you were trying to see the parallels with Climb and Descent) is this: will there be a position of that line for which the air temperature recorded at each end is exactly the same?

Given the parallels I’m drawing with the last puzzle, you’ll probably be thinking that the answer is yes. But can you prove it?

Puzzle 2B – Temperature/Pressure Pairs
Perhaps that was too easy, so instead consider this: what if we measure both air temperature and pressure at each end of the line, and we consider every possible pair of points on opposite sides of the Earth. Will we be able to find a point that is at exactly the same air temperature and pressure as its opposite on the other side of the Earth?

Trivially proven by drawing two overlaid graphs of
altitude vs time.  One line goes top-left to bottom-right,
the other bottom-left to top-right.  Short of teleporter
accidents, the lines have to cross at some point.  Read off
the time and altitude to find where/when.