Tag Archives: technology

Things 128: No spoilers, Beethoven played correctly, automation vs humans

Puzzle – Do Spoilers Matter?
Research looking into the enjoyment of short stories found that reading a ‘spoiler’ beforehand tended to increase enjoyment. That seems quite possible, but the strangest part is that it holds even for mystery or ironic-twist stories. They even have a chart with error bars, which looks pretty compelling (click for big):

So, you’ll generally enjoy all stories you read (or presumably consume in any medium) more if you read about the ending first.

The question, then: how can you justify not doing this?

Video – Omlette
Here’s a really lovely short (2’30”) animation about a dog and an omlette. If you’re having a hard day, I particularly recommend it.

Audio – Beethoven wants you to play faster
When Beethoven eventually got his hands on a metronome, he marked up symphonies with tempos that nobody can quite believe he really meant, and which are pretty much entirely disregarded. This excellent Radiolab podcast investigates. (The forced conversational ‘style’ gets a little irritating, but the demonstration at the end is fantastic).

Links – Race Against The Machine
Our old friend the Invisible Hand guides us to make work more efficient with technology: robots replace humans on production lines, computer work becomes automated, cars and vacuum cleaners operate themselves, and productivity increases. Brilliant.

From the Luddites on, people have been fighting this change to defend their old jobs, but with hindsight we can say they were mistaken, as prosperity has increased, every time, and will continue to do so.

Or will it?!

Despite the apparent historic benefits, it’s still hard to imagine this trend continuing indefinitely and remaining benevolent.

Now, one can imagine some sort of desirable end point, in which (say) solar power becomes incredibly cheap:

… and robots / algorithms are able to do everything humans don’t want to do, and everything is wonderful and everyone is happy.

Of course, quite how you would run such a society isn’t entirely clear, and as Voltaire points out, work isn’t only about earning money:

Work spares us from three evils: boredom, vice, and need

But of more concern right now is how we organise society as we transition towards that end-point. In particular, it seems reasonable to suggest that automation of jobs will tend to increase inequality, as (in a simplistic model), the few that own the robots / server farms reap all the rewards of that automated labour while everyone else loses their jobs.

In case you need reminding, inequality is bad for almost everyone. By the way, a concise point on this topic made by Nick Hanauer in 2011:

If the average American family still got the same share of income they earned in 1980, they would have an astounding $13,000 more in their pockets a year. It’s worth pausing to consider what our economy would be like today if middle-class consumers had that additional income to spend.

Here’s a fun sequence of slides putting the current economic situation (in the US) in 50 years of context (brought together by Business Insider):

Corporate profits as a % of GDP at all time high:

% of Americans with jobs is significantly down:

(Something interesting is happening here, because the more common measure of “unemployment rate” doesn’t look as bad)

Wages as a % of GDP at an all-time low:

(Side-note: these were extracted from a longer chart-based argument to do with wages and debt, which is quite interesting but somewhat disingenuously suggests that just “looking at the data” is some non-political process that can reveal answers, and doesn’t consider the fact that over the same time period the % of retired persons in the US increased from 8% to 13% and could reach 20% in the next 30 years. Still worth a look, though.)

Now, there are many other drivers of inequality (including the feedback loop of lobbying, which The Onion satirises perfectly), and while automation may not have been the biggest contributor so far, it’s worrying that we’re not in a good position just as automation is starting to look like a credible threat to prosperity.

There’s a book on this which characterises the problem in its title: “Race Against the Machine“. I haven’t read it, but apparently the authors make an interesting case and then fail to offer any realistic solutions. The absence of solutions and the seemingly inevitable progress along this line is why I consider this one of the major problems we need to solve (after climate change).

Finally, a really important sci-fi story on this topic: Manna by Marshall Brain, which demonstrates a method by which automation can creep into jobs without replacing them entirely, but the consequences are just as dire. Chapter 1 gives you the gist, but it’s worth continuing to see how he plays out the trend. (At the end he appears to suggest a solution, and unfortunately it appears to be much less realistic than the problem).

-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.

Quote
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.

Pictures
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 121: Kitten Cam, Chain World, Hand-Waving Explanations

Tim Game Thing
If you ever watched Knightmare and wanted to be the kid in the vision-restricting helmet asking “Where Am I?”, or if you wanted to be the team responding “You’re In A Room” and then frantically shouting “Sidestep left”, or perhaps if you wanted to come up with your own ideas for dungeons for those players to explore, then I recommend you come along to Hide & Seek’s free Sandpit event this Friday 25th May (6.30pm-10pm at the Royal Festival Hall near Waterloo), where I’ll be running a game that gives you an opportunity to do exactly those things.

There will also be a lot of other games going on, which sound pretty amazing, so read all about it, and come along.

VideoCat and Kitten webcams
Which is more compelling: a high resolution webcam of some kittens, or low-resolution webcams you can move around and remotely operate cat toys through (if you’re prepared to use Internet Explorer and Silverlight)?

It turns out that even though the latter sounds superficially cooler and more engaging, it’s nowhere near as good as high-resolution kittens.

LinkJason Rohrer’s Chain World
Jason Rohrer has made some very interesting games (I particularly like Sleep Is Death (or at least the idea of it – I haven’t played it yet), Inside a Star-filled Sky, and Passage is apparently pretty amazing (and very short) if you don’t play it stupidly the first time like I did), so it’s not particularly surprising that he came up with the winning concept in a competition to pitch an idea for a game that in some way represented the abstract idea of religion, and which, when actually released into the world, generated some pretty fascinating results.

Heavily Caveated Film Recommendation
The Green Hornet is a Seth Rogen action/comedy vehicle directed by Michel Gondry. If you analyse that sentence you may realise that this was recipe for disaster. With Seth Rogen starring and also writing (with long-time friend and collaborator Evan Goldberg), there was inevitably going to be some creative conflict with a director as idiosyncratic and driven as Michel Gondry (the man behind some of my favourite music videos).

Trailer: (2’06” is the moment that screams “Gondry!”)

Refreshingly, listening to the commentary makes this very clear, as Gondry, Goldberg and Rogen frequently reference the arguments behind almost every good idea in the movie, and occasionally break into new arguments about them (“We had to convince you that this would work!” “No no no! This was my idea! You guys didn’t want to let me do it!”).

This conflict doesn’t particularly damage the movie, but I ended up wishing Gondry had had more things go his way, because all the really weirdly brilliant parts are unmistakeably his. For example, at one point, the bad guy wants to send a message out through his criminal network, and this is how Gondry represents it:

It’s also great to hear his enthusiasm for his own ideas in the commentary, as when this scene starts: “This is awesome, look! Two cameras from one camera! How… did… the hell it happen?!” (Answer: they got the actors to stay in position while shooting one part, then came back to them and picked up shooting from the same position, then forced the shot to match in digital post-production, which is fine, but just count the splits and think about actually pulling that off).

The real problems with this film (to save you the trouble, it’s a 6.0 on IMDb and 44% on Rotten Tomatoes) are I think twofold:

1) Goldberg and Rogen consciously chose to reverse many of the staples (some would say clichés) of a superhero movie, which is admirable, but as is so often said, you need to be very familiar with the “rules” of any art form if you want to break them and still have the thing work, so this sentence ends in just the way you would expect.

2) There’s a fine art to crafting an action movie in which the audience can root for the protagonists, even when they’re harming or even killing bad guys. I don’t know how you pull this off, and apparently neither did anyone making The Green Hornet, because these moments frequently feel wrong.

All of which was fascinating, and I don’t regret watching the movie at all.

Answer 2A and 2B – Temperature/Pressure Pairs
Do there exist a pair of points opposite one another on the earth with exactly the same temperature and pressure? I say yes, and here’s my hand-waving explanation for that.

Stage 1
Let T(x) and P(x) denote the temperature and pressure of point x.

Choose two opposite points, A and B (if T(A) = T(B), do this stage with pressure instead of temperature). Consider a path from A to B (blue arrow in Fig 1a) and the corresponding opposite path from B to A (red arrow in Fig 1a).

In Fig 1b, we chart the temperature of the opposite points as we move around these paths. Just as with the Joss Whedon ascent/descent puzzle, since each line of temperature is continuous, they must cross at least once, and this represents a point at which the temperature is equal on opposite sides of the globe (points C and D in Fig 1b).

Stage 2
We now imagine rotating the circlular path we’ve considered about points A and B (Fig 2a). As we do this, the lines of temperature move continuously (Fig 2b), but since they always start and end at points A and B, the end temperatures remain fixed, and so the point at which the lines cross also moves continuously.

This starts to trace out a line of equal-temperature-opposite-points on the globe (turquoise and purple lines in Fig 2a).

Stage 3
If we continue that rotation all the way around, we trace out a continuous wiggly line of equal-temperature-opposite-points around the globe (Fig 3a, purple and turquoise lines).

We now consider two opposite points on this line, C and D (Fig 3a). We consider the pressure as we trace out a path from C to D (purple line) and the corresponding opposite points on the path from D to C (turquoise line). We can now apply exactly the same argument as in Stage 1 – the two lines of pressure (Fig 3b) are continuous and so must cross at some point, X. At that point, both the temperature and pressure are equal on opposite sides of the globe.

While this is not a proof, it’s reassuring that the Borsuk-Ulam theorem does prove that the result is true, although that’s no garantee that this reasoning is completely sound.

Dom Camus supplied a similarly hand-waving explanation but with a much more audacious line of attack, so if you liked the above, you should definitely check it out.

Phil has a pretty elegant approach, although he didn’t sound that convinced by it. He points out that “On any closed curve (not just great circles), the same sort of argument [as in Fig 1 above] holds […] I claim you can always construct a closed curve containing all its own opposite points and along which the temperature is everywhere equal at opposite points [like the turquoise/purple path in Fig 3]. Otherwise there would be some closed curve containing all its own opposite points, along which the temperature was never equal at opposite points, a contradiction.” You can then repeat Step 3, as above, to reach the same conclusion.

Puzzle Level 3The Crumpled Map
The final level in this series (suggested to me by Tarim) is one I don’t have any kind of hand-waving proof of, but I would love to see one.

Imagine you are on a lovely desert island with a selection of your favourite music, a pencil and paper, and an uncannily perfect map of the island. Actually, only the map is important.

If you lay the map on the ground and align it perfectly with the island itself, it’s quite easy to visualise that there must be a single point on that map which corresponds precisely to the bit of the island directly below it.

Now imagine folding and crumpling the map in any kind of way (but not tearing it) and throwing it anywhere on the ground. Wherever it happens to land, will there still be a point on the map that exactly corresponds to the place on the island directly below it?

Things 119: Journey, Tree Record, Climb and Descent

Game: Journey
If you’re a gamer, you’ve probably heard about Journey. If you’re not a gamer, then you should have heard about it anyway, because it’s quite beautiful and amazing, and only takes 2-3 hours to play through, which means you could visit a friend that has a PS3 and play it in one sitting.

But why would you want to do that?

In this interview, Jenova Chen, the game’s creative director, says:

“Augustine wrote: ‘People will venture out to the height of the mountain to seek for wonder. They will stand and stare at the width of the ocean to be filled with wonder. But they will pass one another in the street and feel nothing. Yet every individual is a miracle. How strange that nobody sees the wonder in one another.’

“There’s this assumption in video games that if you run into a random player over the Internet, it’s going to be a bad experience. You think that they will be an asshole, right? But listen: none of us was born to be an asshole. […] It is the system that made the player cruel, not the player themselves. So if I get the system correct, the players are human and their humanity will be drawn out. I want to bring the human value into a game and change the player’s assumption.”

The reason I say the game is amazing is that it succeeds at this seemingly impossible aim. I’ve played through it a few times now, and each time I’ve had at least one incredibly positive and sustained play experience with a complete stranger.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_mF8KkDiIdk

[Video not working, try this search – metatim, 02/08/15]

Film: The Cabin in the Woods
If you like horror films, you really should watch The Cabin in the Woods. I don’t think it quite succeeds at Joss Whedon’s stated aim (which you shouldn’t look up until after you’ve seen it), but it’s worth it for the wonderfully insane final half hour or so, which, impressively, the trailer largely resists showing any of:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7ENUBUdFswM

[Video not working, try this search – metatim, 02/08/15]

Video: Tree Record / Years
The technology to turn wistful ideas into a reality is in our hands. Look at this device and imagine what you want it to do:

Now check out the video, where it does exactly that:

Read a bit about it here.

Puzzle: Climb and Descent
Tarim recently introduced me to levels 1 and 2 of a puzzle I’d only ever previously heard set at level 3. This week: level 1.

On Day 1, Joss Whedon hikes his way up a mountain, starting at the bottom at midday, and reaching the top (with a few rest stops along the way) 12 hours later, at midnight. He basks in the glory of his achievement for 12 hours, then at midday on Day 2 sets off back down the mountain, reaching the the bottom 12 hours later again, at midnight.

The question: is there a particular time at which he passed through exactly the same altitude on both his Days 1 ascent and Day 2 descent?

Answer: Voice recognition
A long time ago I asked what one could do to improve the chances of having your words understood by one of the many would-be voice-recognition services we find around us today.

After a bunch of googling around, the answers seem to be:

  • Reduce ambient noise where possible
  • Don’t speak too loudly and close to the microphone
  • Leave longer gaps between words than you might in natural speech
  • Speak with the accent the device was tested for

That last point is the one I’m most interested in. The question is, what accent should you use?

It seems the various companies offering this service (Apple/Siri, Google voice search, Xbox Kinect) do have to release different versions for different parts of the English-speaking world (I don’t have a good source for that, but it’s the impression I get from their staged releases, people’s reported experiences, and common sense).

My next plan is to carry out a small personal test in which I try putting on different accents. Results will of course be reported here.

@metatim