Things 57: Webcam-split-screen, Freaks and Potatoes

(Originally sent September 2009)

Forthcoming film
“Surrogates” is due to be released in the UK on the 25th of September. An adaptation of a graphic novel, it looks to be a solid Sci-Fi in what I consider to be the technically correct sense: positing a potential technological development, the story investigates what might happen in a society where such a thing is possible.

In this case the development is ‘surrogates’ – robot avatars that people control remotely, an idea just nicely at the edge of conceivable possibility.

I think the trailer gives too much away, so if you want to see the basic premise just watch the first 60 seconds, and I strongly recommend not watching beyond 1 minute and 30 seconds (seriously!) if you can possibly resist it!

I saw a video pair on YouTubeDoubler (here – pause the left video until the right one tells you to start it) in which two people use two webcams together to create a video for a duet, and I thought “Good, but could do better”. Someone did:

(Starts to get clever at 40”, goes nuts at around 3’10”)

Webcomic ‘Pictures for Sad Children’ suggests an improvement on the ever-unsubstantiated ‘never more than 3 meters from a rat’ saying:

“We’re in earshot of two terrible things at all times”

“Freaks survive because they are strange” – a great headline, a slightly silly experiment involving food-bearing model salamanders, and a plausible-sounding partial answer to the ‘maintenance of variation’ problem with evolution.

Potato Puzzle
You have 100 kilograms of potatoes that are 99% water by weight. You store them in a cupboard, and when you test them again a week later you discover they are now 98% water by weight. How much do the potatoes weigh?

Magical Ground Squirrel Puzzle Answer:
If the magical ground squirrel is able to position the bridges (say) East-West with such accuracy that an imp wanting to go North could not work out which one pointed slightly more Northerly and so had to choose randomly, then the squirrel has good odds of working out the result of the election by doing exactly that and leaving the bridges there the entire time.

If the imps are headed to the good training centres in the East and West, there will be no random choice made by them and when they have all come out 500 will have gone East and 500 West.

However, if the imps want to go to the evil training centres in the North and West, they will be choosing a bridge randomly. In that case, there is (by my calculation) only about a 2.5% chance that exactly 500 will choose each bridge. There’s a 97.5% chance more will go one way than the other, and in this case you could be sure they were evil.


Things 103: Troll Hunter, Algorithmic Price War, London from Above

I just got back from Edinburgh International Film Festival, which had some problems this year, but as an individual punter I nonetheless carved myself out an even better time than last year, thanks mainly to Clare’s choices from the programme and also to Twitter for alerting me to a few late-announced events. A full write up will naturall follow, but for now, I will simply recommend this, which will apparently see some sort of UK release in early September:

I suspect we will start to see more and more of this kind of thing: algorithms written to handle clever tasks in a not-perfectly-clever way, interacting with one another in ways their creators did not forsee since they did not anticipate the other algorithms theirs would be interacting with, to produce bizarre results like this Amazon marketplace book being listed for $23m. Hilarious and terrifying at the same time.

A bunch of sci-fi stories (most recently some Dr Who episodes) confront us with the question: if you encountered an exact copy of yourself, how well would you get on? Very often in these scenarios, the duplicates end up fighting one another. Does that seem realistic for most people? For you? (I have a slightly tangential self-test for this one)

For those of us that live in the UK, it’s hard to imagine that for some people London apparently has the same kind of Destination Appeal as New York, Paris or Tokyo. These pictures of London from above help me to start to see their point of view.


Things 39: Swype, Honest Homeopathy, Cung Fu Kittens

(Originally sent February 2009)

I managed to catch a showing of The Good, The Bad, The Weird yesterday:


I’m very glad I did. It was a bit unexpectedly violent, but had an incredible amount of innovative action visualisation on the screen for a lot of the time.

(Imdb 7.5, RT 88%)

On a similar note, I’m looking forward to seeing Push which looks very silly with people deflecting bullets with the power of their mind:


(Imdb 7.0, RT 26%)

A video
Last year I realised entering text was becoming one of the most important things we do, and the current ways of doing it on mobile devices are actually pretty rubbish. Here’s one vision of how that could change, being presented to a great audience that knows which questions to ask (long video but you get the idea pretty quickly):

Link is dead, here’s a short bit that somebody else shot:


Here’s a more straightforward demo:


A link
Although I don’t subscribe to the idea that “if science can’t explain it then it can’t be real”, Homeopathy does not seem to hold up to rigorous examination, but on the other hand it does offer an excellent method of obtaining a placebo effect. This risks being dishonest, but here’s what an honest approach would look like:

A quote
People almost always mean “I don’t consider <x> a high priority” when they say “I don’t have time for <x>”. This was made transparent earlier this week when I heard someone say:

“I don’t watch TV, I don’t have time for it. Except for sports.”

Way back when I last sent Things I set the Atheist Paradox. My view is that it cleverly exploits the fact that DNA really is the only known example of a ‘naturally’ emerging code in combination with a flawed comparison between “things we know require intelligent design” and “things we see emerge ‘naturally'”, while completely ignoring the hierarchical nature of Intelligent Design. But I won’t go into that any more here.

Anyway, this week, an open ended question. Cinema screens are becoming digital. This means they can also become interactive – before the film, adverts or who knows what can be showing, and the audience can interact with it via their mobile phones. Given that possibility, what could be done? What should be done? What will be done?

A picture is a site for kids to submit their inventions and discuss them. They mainly seem to be board games, spaceships, and self-heating clothing. But I particularly liked “cung fu kittens plus”:


Things 94: Black Swan, Vampire Squid, Stock Market Returns

I saw Black Swan recently and recommend it to anyone that likes the look of the trailer, so long as you’re not squeamish as that’s a whole side of the movie the trailer skims over:


With a reported production budget of $13m (which, as I never tire of telling people, would be just enough to cover Tron Legacy’s costume budget, and was also so restrictive that Natalie Portman opted to forego her trailer in order to afford an on-set medic), I was particularly fascinated by the beautifully subtle (and some not-so-subtle) digital effects they nonetheless managed to achieve. Most excellently, you can see a showreel of how these effects were put together on Look Effects’ website, although if you haven’t seen the film you should steer well clear as it will completely ruin the film for you.

Have Instapaper or Read It Later at the ready because I’m about to flag up some serious long-form content. I don’t think it was available online when it was first published, but you can now read Matt Taibbi’s dilligently researched yet seething explanation of quite what Goldman Sachs does over at Rolling Stone, in which he memorably begins:

The world’s most powerful investment bank is a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money.

Over a year later even publications like The Week will casually refer to them as “Giant vampire squid Goldman Sachs”, which is I think excellent. It’s long, but well worth it, and it has a great twist ending.

As a nice follow-up (or much shorter way of cutting to the heart of the matter), Charlie Stross explains how we got to this point. Or if you want the whole thing in one pithy excerpt:

Corporations have a mean life expectancy of around 30 years, but are potentially immortal; they live only in the present, having little regard for past or (thanks to short term accounting regulations) the deep future: and they generally exhibit a sociopathic lack of empathy.

I think the way we tend to automatically expect groups of humans to behave like individual humans is one of the most disastrous mistakes we make on a daily basis.

All ovens that I’ve seen have some kind of temperature ‘input’ dial, but why do so few have any kind of readout of the actual internal temperature, to the point that there is a market for independently purchased oven thermometers? Shouldn’t market forces guide the manufacturers to include such a feature themselves?

I see a lot of data visualisations that make me angry because they do little more than treat data as almost random input for some kind of procedural image generation process (which is actually very cool when it doesn’t claim to be something it isn’t). This New York Times visualisation of stock market returns over the past 90 years, on the other hand, is actually quite practical at giving you both an overall sense of the patterns while still making each data point quite clear.

I'd just like to make it clear that I'm using the 'ragged edge' functionality of FS capture to show that this is only part of the image. A while ago, when everyone at work had just got in to FS Capture, it was used on just about every image you saw. Those were dark days.

Last Week’s Puzzle
Last week I asked why we seem to be so intolerant of variation in things like driving speed or grammar pedantry.

Angela suggests it’s all to do with herd instinct:

We are constantly (often subconsciously) comparing ourselves with others around us and balancing the desire to fit in (be part of the herd) with our desire to ‘self-express’ (stand out). Even small differences between us and others in the herd could potentially threaten us if they lead us to be ostracised or confer upon others some advantage in terms of survival or reproduction. I think that’s one of the reasons we a) notice and b) are so perturbed by even slight differences – they could signify a real risk to our deepest interests.

I think that’s part of the answer, although it doesn’t explain why we’re more tolerant of a lot of other things, or at least tolerant of variation in one direction (such as how we judge others’ use of free time).

I initially thought it covered those particular areas of life because we recognise them as prisoner’s dilemma / tragedy-of-the-commons areas, where a few people taking the easy way risk leading society to a collectively suboptimal Nash equilibrium.

However, I now think there’s two separate factors at work. In driving, even slight differences in speed add up to one car overtaking another, which we can’t help but read as a social signal that one is ‘doing it wrong’ (and we see the same thing with walking speed).

On the other hand, things like specific bits of grammar pedantry or household hygiene fall into a category of behaviours drummed into us as children, which we then cling on to tenaciously through a combination of Anchoring and Status Quo Bias. Deviation from these things is more on a sub-task basis (“I can’t believe they don’t clean their skirting boards!”) rather than a spectrum, as we adhere to whichever specific rules we were taught.