Tag Archives: science

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!


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


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.


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 April 2017: Multiplayer Mobile games, Weight loss and Physics, Paranoia and Tolerance

This issue of Things was initially drafted in January 2016 and for various reasons is just coming out now. Let’s see how out of date it is…

Mobile Game of the Moment: Dreii

Mobile gaming is very exciting, because touch-interface location-aware always-online devices open up an amazing new landscape of interactive possibilities. Mobile gaming is also very depressing because these possibilities are rarely harnessed in an interesting way, and even when they are it rarely leads to commercial success.

This is exactly why I’m recommending you get Dreii right now (available on Android, iOS and also on Steam).

It’s an elegant physics-based puzzler in which you try to stack objects under various challenging constraints. The really brilliant bit is that you get to co-operate with anyone else that happens to be playing the same level (on any device) at the same time as you. There’s also a rather lovely map visualisation in which you can see what levels others are playing to better seek them out – or go back and help another player make it through to the one you’re stuck on!

The helpfulness of others is massively varying, which is part of the charm. I recommend it right now as the recent launch ensures a goodly surge of currently active players.

Update: well, that was written about a year ago, so I can’t really recommend it as much because few are now playing it. You can do local co-op with someone else playing at the same time though, so it’s still worth a go if you can arrange for that!

Or go and play the other brilliant game I got into in the intervening time: Snakebird (iOS, Android, Steam), an incredibly simple yet extremely difficult puzzle game.

Or go and play Crash of Cars (iOS, Android), which is real-time arcade-style car combat and is being played by a few million people at the time of writing.

Humans are More Complicated than Physics, part 94: Weight vs Diet

If you want to lose weight, don’t eat. This is not medicine, it’s thermodynamics. If you take in more than you use, you store it.
– Michael Bloomberg

It seems most people agree with Bloomberg’s appealing logic. It turns out, as it often does, that humans are more complicated than simple physics would suggest.

Vox has a great look at the energy-in energy-out model here. The most striking conclusion of their wide-ranging review of research is that exercise is great for health, but not for weight loss. For weight loss, diet is a much more important component. So Bloomberg is sounding roughly right, but the mystery then deepens when we consider a study that found people on the same diet and exercise regimes put on more weight now than they did in the 80’s.  Note that although the Atlantic’s headline is “Why It Was Easier to Be Skinny in the 1980s”, the article doesn’t answer the question, because we don’t actually know. We just have some theories.

Finally, on Aeon, David Berreby dives a lot deeper into this mystery. Most striking for me was the finding that over the last two decades, animals as well as humans have gained weight – including lab mice, which have gained an average of 11% per decade despite having rigorously consistent diets. If you want to read about some fascinating theories on why this might be happening (light? BPA? A virus?), go check it out.

Since that was all a bit depressing, here’s some fun data on how the UK’s diet has changed over time.

Paranoia in Politics

Quite a few months ago (er, a year ago now) Charlie Stross wrote about the Paranoid Style in politics. He cites two fascinating essays charting the relationship between paranoia / conspiracy-theories and US Republicans (one from 50 years ago and one more recent). Things like “9/11 was an inside job”, vaccine-related conspiracies, or any time you hear the phrase “Liberal elite”. Stross then adds his own interpretation of how the internet has reinforced this and given rise to (take a deep breath) an “ad-hoc movement of angry ideologues who have jabbed their fungal hyphae into the cerebral cortex of Reddit and n-chan to parasitically control the rageface collective.”

Well, a year has gone by and this has all become rather more clear. I think the only useful thing to add is that Popularism (in the sense of a political movement that believes most of the existing power structures are self-serving, corrupt, and out-of-touch) is clearly a close relative of the Paranoid Style.

Google Image Reverse Search growing in Intelligence?

If you want to search based on an image (to find where it came from, or a higher resolution version) you can use TinEye and get limited but exact results. Or you can use Google’s “Search by image” functionality to get a wide range of approximate results. I do this quite a lot while trying to track down the artists behind work I post on my daily drawing Tumblr.

I recently tried to use it to trace the origin of this piece:

I was unable to find the artist, but I was extremely impressed that Google suggested a page of ‘similar images’ which were indeed a lot of paintings of cats with a similar colour palette and often distorted proportions:

You can of course use these properties of the search algorithm to generate art.

Tolerating the Tolerable

I can Tolerate anything except the Outgroup” is an essay by Scott Alexander on filter bubbles and tolerance. It’s so interesting to me that I’ll summarise it all below, but I recommend reading it in full.

  • Alexander defines Tolerance as “respect and kindness toward members of an Outgroup”, and defines an Outgroup as a group that has “proximity plus small differences”: a group of people who live in the same neighbourhood but who are ‘slightly’ different to you. I’m capitalising these terms because the definitions aren’t sufficiently general – for example, you could be racist but still Tolerant under this definition.
  • He broadens typical US political alignments into ‘tribes’: Conservatives are Red tribe, Liberals are Blue tribe (the US political colour binary reverses the UK’s). As a side note he also identifies a libertarian-leaning Grey Tribe, which I’ve found to be a useful concept – the Grey tribe is typified by:

“…libertarian political beliefs, Dawkins-style atheism, vague annoyance that the question of gay rights even comes up, eating paleo, drinking Soylent, calling in rides on Uber, reading lots of blogs, calling American football “sportsball”, getting conspicuously upset about the War on Drugs and the NSA, and listening to filk”

  • Alexander then asserts that the liberal Blue tribe’s outgroup is in fact the Red tribe. He gives the interesting example of being roundly criticised by Blues for expressing any kind of relief at Osama bin Laden’s death, only to later see those same people openly celebrating the death of Margaret Thatcher.
  • Finally, he suggests that political articles that reference ‘Americans’ or ‘White people’, written by Blue tribe people (who are notionally included in those groups), are tacitly actually about Red tribe members, and when a Blue says “I can tolerate anything except intolerance”, they are identifying intolerance with the Red tribe and are actually saying “I can tolerate anything except the Red tribe / my Outgroup” which no longer sounds that impressive.

In an excellent coda, Alexander then realises that he’s doing the same thing: criticising a group he notionally is a member of (the Blue tribe), but actually criticising his Outgroup, as he realises he’s probably Grey.

While I think this is an interesting argument, I do think it’s important to note that being intolerant of a group of people who hold opposing political views (which can’t be identified on sight, and can change) seems far less egregious than being intolerant of people who simply look a certain way. Views are, after all, one step away from Actions, but that’s a distinction I’ll get to in the next edition of Things.

- Transmission finally ends

Things 133: Overreacting, audio history of sampling, internet vs time, meta-meta-analysis

Comics – Overreacting

Jemma Salume has an excellent series of comics about overreacting to things (and also learning to cook, and dating). They’re compact and hyperbolic, which is how I like my comics, and also how I like my toy universe model geometries, hahaha.

Music – Raiding the 20th Century
This remains my favourite mix, and with the ten-year anniversary upon us I was surprised to realise I had never put it in Things.

In 2004, DJ Food (aka Strictly Kev) made a 40-minute mix for XFM chronicling the history of ‘cut-up’ (essentially sample-based) music which he called ‘Raiding the 20th Century’. Shortly afterwards he read Paul Morley’s book ‘Words and Music’ which did much the same thing and covered much of the same material. Paul Morley also coined the phrase ‘Raiding the 20th Century’ twenty years earlier. Taking note of this big flashing fate-arrow, they got together, recorded Paul reading key parts of the book, and created a new hour-long mix of the material.

The mp3 is available over on archive.org, the track listing is here, and you can go ahead and listen to it right here:

It’s about 20 minutes before the ‘history’ really starts, and while Morley’s commentary then explains and introduces many of the tracks and samples, many more are used without comment. Over the years, as I learn more about music history, more and more of them are making sense, which is very satisfying. As one of the samples used states: “every time you listen to this recording, something will happen.”

Links – Time and the Internet
As we build up an ever larger historical archive of material online, the date something was originally published becomes more important, and something we’ll need to become more aware of (assuming we avoid internet decay).

I like the approach of the BBC, which appears to maintain the CMS that articles originally appeared in (for example, this report from September 11th 2001, or the Mammal-of-the-month November 2002). That’s still not quite enough to avoid the confusion that may arise from incautious Googling for events that recur. Also, try to work out when this was written.

Anyway, if you would prefer a cogent discussion of the topic rather than a selection of semi-random BBC links, then I highly recommend Joanne McNeil’s piece on the subject here, in which she says things much more precisely than I have been, like this:

“Digital content appears with minimal visual language distinguishing yesterday from tomorrow and today. Now habits have emerged in which we communicate with the past and even mistake it for the present.”

(Also, see this Cat and Girl comic).

Video – Brett Domino
Looking through previous editions of Things, I was surprised to find I’d never featured Brett Domino, who does a range of silly-but-clever, bad-but-good things with music. I think the most impressive is his medley of the top 10 pop songs at the time he hit 10,000 Twitter followers, which culminates in a surprisingly effective montage finale:

Link – Scientific truth, researcher bias, and parapsychology
In a meta-analysis, the results of many similar experiments are analysed together in order to gain statistical power and shed more light on subtle phenomena. For example, if it’s a very small effect, some experiments won’t yield any results, perhaps causing us to question the experiments that do find an effect; by considering all these experiments together, we can better assess if we’re seeing Type I or Type II errors. Also, if you suspect the result may only come about due to sloppy methodology, you can see if there is a correlation between how ‘rigorous’ a study is and the size of any effect that it finds – if more rigorous studies come up with smaller effects, that’s quite suggestive.

Years ago I read about a meta-analysis of research into psychic abilities, and the results were not clear-cut one way or the other, despite taking a comprehensive overview of the relevant studies. I thought that was very interesting, because it suggested that either psychic abilities were real, or the scientific method wasn’t as infalliable as I had thought (or both).

Many more studies have been performed since, and this problem does not seem to go away. A strong clue seems to be the experimenter’s bias effect: a researcher who believes that an experiment will yield a certain outcome is more likely to end up getting that outcome, even if they are not intentionally manipulating the experiment to that end.

Of course, experimenter’s bias is quite a tricky and small effect to prove, so what you need to do is a meta-analysis across the various studies into it. But when different people conduct this meta-analysis, they reach different conclusions: some find the experimenter’s bias effect exists, and some find it doesn’t!

If you’ve been following closely to this point, you can guess the logical next step: we need a meta-meta-analysis of the experimenter’s bias meta-analyses, to see if meta-experimenters that believe the experimenter’s bias effect exists were more likely to find exactly that result in their meta-analysis! Brilliantly, and also alarmingly, this meta-meta-analysis was conducted and concluded that, yes, that’s exactly what happens: there is indeed a meta-experimenter’s bias effect. So the question now is… does the experimenter’s bias effect actually exist?

I found all this out from a brilliant essay by Scott Alexander, which includes all the juicy references and finishes with an amusingly modified Star Wars quote, so is pretty much perfect.

Puzzle – Sequel Naming
For some media, major new updates are numbered: movies (Iron Man 3), TV series (Game of Thrones Season 4), video games (Call of Duty 4) are obvious, but it’s also dominant in operating systems (Windows 8), Consoles/phones (Playstation 4, Samsung Galaxy S4) and even classical music (Bach’s Cantata No. 140),

Other things don’t seem to work that way, notably books (A Clash of Kings, rather than A Game of Thrones 2) and albums (Björk – Post, rather than Debut 2), but also theatrical productions (admittedly much rarer, but it’s Love Never Dies, rather than Phantom of the Opera 2)

(Of course, sometimes people mix their strategies with hilarious results: Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare 2, BT Infinity 2, Xbox “One”)

The contrast is most stark in TV series versus books. So the question is this: why do we have Game of Thrones Season 2 on TV, but A Clash of Kings in book form?

Tim Mannveille tweets as @metatim, and previously worried about old things disappearing from the internet 

Things 122: Linda, Sledding Crow, Brand Promises as Modern Myths

Puzzle - The Linda Problem
I see this come up every few years, and get annoyed by it every time. Here’s a typical wording:

Linda is 31 years old, single, outspoken, and very bright. She majored in philosophy. As a student, she was deeply concerned with issues of discrimination and social justice, and also participated in anti-nuclear demonstrations.

Which is more probable?

  1. Linda is a bank teller.
  2. Linda is a bank teller and is active in the feminist movement.

Most people get this wrong. Why?

Usually I follow up on a puzzle in the next edition, but this one is so annoying I’ll address it below, after these other things.

VideoCrow Sledding
The Atlantic has the perfect headline for this video: “Science Can Neither Explain Nor Deny the Awesomeness of this Sledding Crow.”

At the time of writing, their version of the video is down, but this one isn’t:

(Extended version with same amount of sledding but more corvid activity here)

LinkColour perception and language
Ever since reading 1984 I’ve been doubtful but curious about the extent to which language can influence the way we think or even perceive. In a brilliant couplet of articles about colour on Empirical Zeal, I found out about some really nice experiments that demonstrate a real (albeit small) effect, so I highly recommend reading both part 1 and part 2.

ComicMartin Zutis – Being
In a comic shop in Vienna I came upon a small self-published comic, ‘Being’ by Martins Zutis. Packed with surreal imagery and insights that float around the border between madness and brilliance, I particularly liked this observation:

The news reports we don’t question are myths.

Here’s a tiny snippet, or you can read a slightly longer extract here.

Martin Zutis - Being

Answer - The Linda Problem / Conjunction fallacy (see above)
Most people (85%, apparently) will answer that option 2 is more likely, “Linda is a bank teller and is active in the feminist movement.”

At this point the person who set this problem usually laughs like a supervillain and points out that the probability of two things both being true must always be less than or equal to the probability of just one of those things being true. They will say this is a demonstration of the Conjunction Fallacy.

However, these people are wrong. What it actually shows is that if you choose to go against the cooperative priniciple in communication, people will misunderstand you so much that any attempt to isolate the Conjunction Fallacy is lost.

Consider a slightly different scenario:

Boris: I have two sisters. Alice is a bank teller. Eve is a bank teller and a feminist.
James: Oh, that’s interesting. Why do you think Alice doesn’t consider herself a feminist?
Boris: I didn’t say she wasn’t.

When I ask people where the mistake arose in this conversation, the surprisingly consistent judgement is that Boris was “being a dick”.

More formally, as noted in that article on the cooperative principle, we tend to implicitly assume that when someone is telling us something, they will narrow their focus to only that which is relevant. When Boris states that Eve is a feminist, this suggests this information is (for whatever reason) relevant, so the fact is was not noted for Alice strongly suggests she isn’t a feminist.

Some researchers then restate the problem by making it clear that option 1 is “Linda is a bank teller and may or may not be active in the feminist movement”, and still 57% of people think option 2 is more likely. But the assumption of relevance is still a confounding factor: the lead-in to the question is assumed to be relevant (when in fact it’s explicitly designed to be misleading), so I suspect people will be drawn to option 2 more because of this assumption (perhaps assuming they’ve misunderstood some part of the question) than because they misunderstand probability.

The Wikipedia article on the Conjunction Fallacy is much better than when I first reviewed it, covering these concerns and giving a much better demonstration of the fallacy in question.

(As an aside, I will note that I’ve often indulged in similar deviations from the cooperative principle for the sake of setting some kind of puzzle, although hopefully this is usually clear by context – for example, as I asked in Things 4, how far can a dog run into the woods?)