Things 131: Frozen is objectively great, Internet decay and hamsters, Shower danger

Data-based movie recommendation
In 2010, with the release of Disney’s The Princess and the Frog, I looked back at the historic trends to try to understand where Disney went wrong in the 00’s. The Princess and the Frog (and Bolt before it) were successful in terms of IMDB and Rotten Tomatoes ratings, but less so in terms of revenue.

I concluded that Disney had to somehow maintain this level of quality in order to build back their reputation. With Tangled, Wreck-it-Ralph, and most recently Frozen, that’s exactly what they’ve done. In fact, since 2011, they’ve consistently outperformed Pixar (despite owning them):

Frozen currently enjoys the highest IMDB rating Disney have received since The Lion King, although due to self-selection it will be somewhat overstated in these initial weeks after its release.

On a more personal note, I’ve now seen Frozen twice, and highly recommend it – do be advised that it is a full-on musical, but co-composed by one of the people behind The Book of Mormon, so there’s a lot to enjoy even if that wouldn’t usually be your cup of tea. It’s also highly notable for having two female leads with real agency (I’m looking at you, Brave, with your arbitrary plot-advancing Will O’ the Wisps).

Video –Automated Automata Architecture
Continuing the Disney-is-actually-pretty-good-now theme, here Disney research demonstrate how they can generate the gearing required to closely recreate an arbitrary cyclical movement, then 3D-print the result to make the automaton. I particularly like the cyber tiger at 3’30”:

(via The Kid Should See This)

Tumblr – Video games with modified objectives
No wrong way to play” collects examples of people playing video games in ways not intended by the designers. I approve of this.

Tim Link – Learning to Cheat, part 3
Two years ago I surprised myself by betraying someone pretty meanly in a public game. I began a series of blog posts post-rationalising the whole thing within a game-design framework, and after a guilty two-year gap I finally posted my full confession and/or excuse.

Internet decay
If you’ve ever navigated early entries of Things on the blog, you might have seen some dead links, and some links which went dead and got fixed, and some which died again, as I periodically go back and attempt to fight digital entropy.

Based on this insignificant sample, it seems like the half-life for links on the internet is 5-10 years, and considerably less for YouTube videos. This is pretty distressing as laziness/convenience drives us to rely on the internet for files we’re interested in – after all, your options are essentially a) saving a lolcat in downloads>pictures>cats, renaming the file so you can easily find it, and maintaining off-site backups of your data to hedge against hardware failure, or b) just image search “I have a cat and I’m not afraid to use it” from any device, which is a lot more appealing. (Naturally I still choose option a).

There’s a few good links on the subject here, including the compelling quote:

“People are coming to the realization that if nobody saves the Internet, their work will just be gone.” – Alexis Rossi, Internet Archive

Hamster fighting machine / response
Here’s an example of why it’s important to hold onto things on the internet. In 2005, Jarred Purrington made the Hamster Fighting Machine comic/poster (which you can see here or here but not on the original link because it’s dead)

In 2010, Dale Beran (writer of previously-Thinged webcomic/cogent nightmare “A lesson is learned but the damage is irreversible”) posted a lovely response.

Answer – 100 Chalices
Last time I asked if you should choose a chalice with 50/50 odds of being poisoned over one random chalice out of 100 which 100 fiends have each independently and randomly poisoned one of.

Restated, this is asking if you would prefer one-hundred 1-in-100 chances of death vs a single ½ chance. Richard correctly reasoned that the average amount of poison-per-chalice is double in the 100-chalice room, and some degree of bunching in the distribution (i.e. some chalices getting poisoned multiple times) didn’t seem likely to offset it, so the 50/50 chance is probably the best bet.

For any of you not familiar with the probability behind this sort of thing, here’s a quick summary. In the 100-chalice case, calculating all the ways a chalice could get poisoned is very difficult, but calculating the probability of it never getting poisoned is much easier as there’s only one way that can happen. The odds of avoiding poison any one time are 99/100, and this has to be repeated 100 times. So:

Odds of avoiding poisoning = 99/100 x 99/100 x … x 99/100 = (99/100)^100 = 37%. Clearly not as good as the 50% chance in the two-chalice room.

As a post-script, if you’re interested, the expected ‘bunching’ of poisonings would look a bit like this:

This is also a very important concept when evaluating risks in your own life for things that you repeat. For example, I noticed that I tended to step out of the shower in a needlessly risky way, with a risk of slipping (and getting seriously hurt) of perhaps 1-in-a-thousand. That seems tolerable, until you consider that if I showered once a day for 2 years, my odds of avoiding such a fate would be (999/1000)^730 = 48%, in other words I’d be more likely to have at least one such accident than not! So, watch out for that.

Answer – Kickstarter videos
I’ve spoken to a few people about the fact that Kickstarter videos always make me feel less motivated to put my money in. The underlying reason seems to be that a Kickstarter page typically does a great job of selling the product/reward, but the video often ends up being more about selling the people behind it (as being worthy, or in need of your money). Before the video I don’t even think about that; after the video, that’s just another reason to say no.

-Transmission finally ends


Things 127: Partner Parity Problem, Games and Stories, Beautiful Pictures

Mild NSFW warning: the last part of this edition embeds some pictures of female comic characters. There’s also a cat video, but I just assume everyone is fine with that.

Make-your-own hyperlapse video
Well, this is incredible: set a start and end point in Google street view, a target for the camera, and get as output a time-lapse video of that journey, in which you can still control the direction of the gaze – Google Street View Hyperlapse.

Here’s the demo reel.

Rabbit Hole: No to No UI
Timo Arnall says No to No UI (more commonly referred to as “invisible design”), and puts forth a detailed and cogent argument, but the main reason I recommend reading it is the warren of rabbit-hole links he uses as implicit citations. For example, Kevin Slavin talks about algorithms, how they don’t share our goals and can have emergent properties we can’t understand like a flash crash due to algorithmic stock trading, and then he takes a hop from “60% of Netflix viewing comes from the recommendation algorithm” (not true if you check carefully), a skip to “Epagogix can algorithmically evaluate the box office potential of a scipt” (no) to jump to this wonderfully flippant quote:

What does a flash crash look like in hollywood? Maybe it’s already happened! How would we know?!

Puzzle and Tim Link

Reporting on a reasonably conducted study’s findings on heterosexual parternships, the Telegraph ran with the headline “Average man has 9 sexual partners in lifetime, women have 4.”

First, what’s wrong with this claim?

Second, how does such a result come about?

Third, as the second is too easy for Things readers, I invite you to guess: which sub-set of respondents is most responsible for the discrepancy?

As some of you will know, I work at a web analytics consultancy where we disentangle data conundrums not dissimilar to this, so I wrote up my findings in a blog post – I found the answer to the last question quite satisfying!

Animal Videos – flocking starlings, evil cat
Kottke has the perfect pair of Starling flock videos – the standard high definition, clean and beautiful static camera one, and then a low resolution one that’s much more thrilling. You should watch both on as big a screen as you can.

Meanwhile, in the sub-genre of YouTube videos enlivened by a dramatic movie score, I declare this cat video the winner:

Games and stories
There is a tension between making a fun game and telling a good story; it seems to be very hard to do both at the same time. I think this might be because these represent two opposite learning methods; learning from someone else’s example, and learning by trying stuff out yourself in a safe environment.

But there’s a flip side of this conflict: sometimes, in the course of playing a game, you generate your own story, one you would never normally get to tell. Here’s an example.

I once played a match of 4-player local GoldenEye, back when I wouldn’t have needed to specify that 4-player GoldenEye was local. I ran out of ammo, and was chased down a twisty dead end by my friend who had some kind of machine gun, so I was pretty much doomed. I did have one thing though, and I said as much:

“I’ve got a proximity mine. If you come any closer I’ll kill us both!”

He laughed, and continued to pursue me round the final tight corner.

I set the proximity mine.

It killed us both.

I don’t remember the final score of that game – I don’t think I did well. But that tiny story remains one of my favourite gaming moments. For that reason, I was very interested to read Tom Armitage’s review of Game Dev Story, a cute little game that crudely simulates running a game development studio through the major console generations, because he made this assessment:

Game Dev Story exemplifies a kind of mechanical storytelling: stories told not through text or voice-acting, but through coherent systems that cannot help but generate stories.

I gave it a go, and he was absolutely right. Apart from the sense of ownership you get from making company decisions, the ability to name your company and the games you produce has some kind of magical effect that makes the whole thing strangely compelling.

It’s not a great story, but it meant a lot to me: after a difficult start, Squidopolis released a string of titles whose success built a war chest which specially trained hardware engineer Stephen Jobson put to use in developing the ultimate console: the Kraken, for which we then produced a string of hits, despite some major setbacks in production.

Game Dev Story is available on Android and iOS.

Folk Games
I like the term ‘folk games’ for equipmentless games a group of people can spontaneously play, such as Standoff, or Ninja, or Fantasy Fencing. I highly recommend all of those, the last one being particularly notable as it is an example of the ‘Tiny Games’ that Hide & Seek are putting into an app (so you don’t have to memorise these sort of things for every occasion). That’s happening on Kickstarter, and with a day to go at the time of writing it’s already funded, but I still recommend the £12 tier (which includes their Board Game Remix kit) to help reach the stretch goals!

Tim Link: Devil May Dance
I like putting in place processes in which incremental progress is made towards a goal, and this year I reached the end of my biggest project so far: I finished my webcomic, Devil May Dance, which I had been updating weekly since April 2006.

The premise was to swap the macho protagonist of the video game Devil May Cry with the feminine lead of seminal rhythm action game Space Channel 5, and see how they got on in one another’s shoes, partly as a way to investigate gender expectations, and partly as an attempt to get some cheap laughs.

If that sounds interesting to you, or if you’re curious what would happen if I wrote a story involving time travel, you should check it out.

I also did a little summary of the web stats of the comic over its lifetime.

Beautiful pictures.
Sunset on mars. Pictures with High Dynamic Range. Icebergs that are naturally stripey. An abandoned epic communist building.

But more importantly, there’s another Kickstarter I’d like to draw your attention to. A friend of mine illustrates comics using primarily traditional techniques, and although she works incredibly hard, I get the impression this means she can’t turn out pages at the kind of speed a regular publisher would like (on account of having to wait for individual colours to dry!), so this is exactly the kind of thing Kickstarter is good for – delivering the kind of projects the invisible hand would usually hold back.

Unfortunately, according to kicktraq’s projection, at a little over half way through, the project has a 50/50 chance of success, so it’s going to need some extra help to make it. Check it out before April 24th!

-Transmission finally ends


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, 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 113: Next Thursday, Learning to Cheat, Bullet Time

When someone says “next Thursday” on a Monday, which Thursday do they mean?

Tim Link
Playing a trading/smuggling game at the recent Sandpit event at the National Maritime Museum, I did something more evil than I knew I was capable of. That got me thinking about the ethics of lying, what games taught me about that, and exactly how rules-based games can enable people to learn about breaking rules. The post is illustrated with playing cards, since I had some to hand.

Two advantages of eBooks are that book size hardly matters, and you can easily link from one page to any other page. Now think about what this means for the choose-your-own-adventure genre. Jon Ingold found you could take a totally different approach, and produced a playable murder mystery that would be as tall as a house were it printed physically.

A nice way to remember confirmation bias:

Tolstoy: “The most difficult subjects can be explained to the most slow-witted man if he has not formed any idea of them already; but the simplest thing cannot be made clear to the most intelligent man if he is firmly persuaded that he knows already, without a shadow of doubt, what is laid before him.”

Bullet time