Tag Archives: trends

Things July 2017: Archive Adventures – part 1

In November, Things will be 10 years old. Since the beginning, I’ve collected an archive of interesting things, and at various intervals then created Things out of that archive. I tend to collect slightly more things than I publish, so the archive has grown. Rather than cull it, I’m going to just put them all out in two big catch-up editions. In this edition: Stories, Technology, Imagery, and all the Puzzles. This is going to be intense!

This Just In

Before I get to the archive, a couple of recent things.

Damien Henry’s video for Steve Reich’s “Music for 18 Musicians” makes excellent use of machine learning for art. Using video shot from a moving train, an algorithm learns how to predict what the next frame will look like. Every 20s into the video the amount of learning used increases. The result is fascinating, and perfectly complements the music. You can skip through the video to get an idea of the effect, but it’s best played in full!

There is an awkward vein of humour in which comedians interview (often) unsuspecting subject-matter experts in a non-serious manner (Philomena Cunk interviewing Brian Cox is one I don’t mind so much). Superficially, Werner Herzog sometimes takes a similar approach in his documentaries (noted in Things 118 in 2012, “Please describe an encounter with a squirrel”), but there is a hidden earnestness behind his questions. If you’ve never seen any of his documentaries, this excellent short clip on penguins shows you what you’re missing.

Stories

I think via Richard L, here’s an interesting piece on Plots not involving conflict.

In some stories/fables/myths the inciting incident or key point of drama is a character attempting to do something different to normal. In old stories, the character often fails and is punished, the moral being “know your place” (for example, the crow that tries to sing and in so doing drops a piece of cheese). In more modern stories, the character often succeeds and is rewarded. Is that generalisation true though? And what does it mean? I was going to collect examples of each and try to see a pattern, but never ended up doing that, so I’ll just leave it here as an unfinished thought.

The Cosmology of Serialised Television is an essay by David Auerbach which categorises long-running TV fiction by cosmological universe types: Steady State, Expansionary, Big Crunch. I didn’t find it particularly useful in terms of identifying solutions to the intrinsic storytelling problems of the medium, or even uncovering hidden gems (just the expected “Everything is terrible except for The Wire and Babylon 5“).

Still, it’s a lot of fun to read and nod along to, with some great terse summaries along the way, for example:

“So comics evolved by directing creative effort away from any moments of quality and toward large-scale creative bankruptcy”

See Maris Wicks’ 16-panel summary of Kitty Pride’s relationship with Colossus (penultimate comic in this post) for a great example of this.

Choose Your Own Adventure

One of my favourite kind of stories is any subversion of the “Choose your own adventure” format. Previously on Things I’ve linked to Luke Surl’s perfectly terse ‘Free Will‘ page. As an implied CYOA, this previously-linked Beaver and Steve comic also remains a classic.

The “Prog 2012″ issue of 2000AD featured a story called “Choose your own Xmas”, and subverts the format while also shattering the 4th wall. It’s completely brilliant but isn’t online so you’ll just have to trust me and buy or borrow it.

Viviane Schwarz also subverted the format beautifully to convey what it’s like to suffer from anxiety.

Working within the extraordinarily tight constraints of having a fixed panel and art layout, Ryan North still found a way to make a CYOA version of Dinosaur Comics.

Save The Date (recommended to me by Tarim and Richard L, available for free on Windows, Mac or Linux) leverages the Ren’Py ‘visual novel’ engine in a rather clever way, and if you’re interested in games and storytelling, have 30-60 minutes to spare, and can tolerate an apparently high rate of failure, you should give it a go. It could perhaps have delivered its message more elegantly at the “end”.

Also via Richard L, Trapped In Time (pdf) is a nice twist on the traditional choose-your-own-adventure format that leverages the format in a few interesting ways I’ve not seen before, and actually works very well as a pdf!

And I should mention this just in – browser-based interactive time travel fiction, One Night in Skegness, by Matheson Marcault (Holly Gramazio and Sophie Sampson). More time travel, but in a more relaxed way.

Technology

Perhaps surprisingly, a link about technology that sat in my backlog for 5 years has become more interesting with age. John B recommended the article, in which Alexis Madrigal laments that (in 2012), internet startups are just retreading the same ground and no longer promise to revolutionise our lives. John also pointed out the comment below the article by Urgelt (comment link doesn’t seem to work, wait for comments to load, which they often don’t, then find ‘Urgelt’ in the page). Urgelt more precisely categorises startups into those that grow the economy vs those that just take market share from existing businesses, and the issue is that most startups are falling into the latter category.

Both make a very interesting read 5 years further on, leading one to ask: has anything changed since then? Two trends jump to mind.

The Gig-economy-style startups (Uber, Deliveroo, AirBnB) suggest major changes, but might not actually scale. Uber charges around half of the true cost, subsidising the rest in a bid to achieve market dominance when driverless cars arrive; Deliveroo similarly rides an unsustainable cost/charge balance for much the same reason; only AirBnB arguably doesn’t fit into this category as the market sets the price.

Crowdfunding seems to be a more impressive development. In 2012, Kickstarter was just turning the corner, and Patreon is now in the ascendancy. From artists/game-makers that I follow, these services genuinely seem to be creating viable revenue-streams that were not previously available, to the benefit of culture in general. For example, Captain Disillusion (referenced in Things March 2015 and Things 17) was never mass-market enough for ad-revenue to be viable, but now raises sufficient money from Patreon to work on his videos pretty much full time.

In more “modern life is terrible” news, here’s an article from Cracked in late 2013 that is really just an enjoyably angry and sarcastic rant about clickbait content-farming. I remember at the time thinking that, if nothing else, the clickbait headline style would have to change as humans will fall for anything once, or maybe a hundred times, but eventually will develop a sort of semiotic herd-immunity to these well-dressed empty promises. Four years on… have things changed? Well, if nothing else, Facebook is at least attempting to deprioritise these sorts of headlines; more specifically, headlines that withhold key information, and headlines that senselessly exaggerate the content.

Imagery and Comics

Wondermark on the thought-experiment of money having a continuity rather than just being an abstract quantity of value. Wet owlsInopportunely placed stickers. Bikes recreated (digitally) from drawings. The Door to Hell: “They set the hole on fire, expecting it to burn itself out of fuel in a few days. Now, some 42 years later, it is still burning”.

Puzzles/Questions

Collecting all unused puzzles here is probably too intense, but I quite like that about it, so I’m doing it anyway.

1) 2D News

Sci/tech news is often quite one-dimensional, revealing a single scientific discovery or technological advancement at a time. As a thought-experiment, try combining two or more such stories from the past year into something amazing. For example, advances in drone technology + advances in ‘invisibility cloaks’ = army of invisible drones. Finding loads of other planets + anything = awesome.

2) Put Put boat

A toy Put Put boat has an amazingly simple heat engine, which you may recognise from the film Ponyo. A candle heats a small boiler; some water in the boiler vaporises but cannot escape, generating pressure that pushes the remaining water out a pipe. The momentum of the water keeps it pushing out, leaving the inside of the boiler with low air pressure. As a result, water then rushes back in, and the process repeats. Water thus repeatedly enters and exits a pipe pointed out the back of the boat, which then travels forward in a halting manner. The puzzle is this: why does the boat actually move forward, instead of just moving back and forth, given water is just going in and out?

3) Bernoulli vs the Train Window

In a similar vein to the Put Put boat, we have the Bernoulli train window problem. Bernoulli’s principle roughly states that faster moving air acts as if it has lower pressure. The classic demonstration is to hold a piece of A4 paper by one end in front of your chin so it droops downwards away from you; by blowing over the top, the pressure is reduced, and the piece of paper rises up due to the higher pressure underneath it.

A similar effect could be seen in an old-fashioned push-to-close narrow train window. If such a window was open and the train entered a tunnel, the window would slam shut. Or, would a shut one blow open? Depending on whether you take the perspective of the tunnel or the train, the faster moving air is on one side of the window or it is on the other. So which way does the window go?

4) Catbird seat

The Catbird seat is one of those puzzles I like because you can solve it with drawings and trigonometry, and then you can solve it better with simpler drawings and simpler trigonometry, and then you wonder if you can solve it in some kind of purely intuitive manner.

5) Shape of a Harp

When plucked, a longer taut string makes a deeper note. A harp has progressively longer strings to cover a range of notes. However, even though the interval between each note is the same, the length of the strings does not change linearly, or even following a simple curve, but rather an S-curve. Why is that? I thought this question might have a nice intuitive solution that could be reached by reason rather than by physics, but the answer is a bit more disatisfying, so this question remained in my backlog unasked. If you don’t want to figure it out (and my personal opinion is it’s not that interesting to do so), you can read about it here, although you’ll need the internet archive page for the harp citation.


Not a harp, but the principle is the same

- Transmission finally ends

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 110: Tom Cookie Monster Waits, Base Jumping with Dan Deacon, Nothing To Hide

Question – is change accelerating?
I’ve had vague qualms about the rhetoric of accelerating change, but intuitively felt that even if the arguments weren’t quite right, there was still some truth in it. Matt Edgar confronts these arguments directly here, noting among other things that Moore’s law is hardly a useful measure of change as experienced by humans, that the human perspective tends to see the present as faster-moving than the past, and that by some important measures, change has actually reduced:

There is one factor that is radically different today from any other time in history, and that is the size of the Earth’s human population […] one might argue that the global population boom is only made possible by stability in whole swathes of the world previously troubled by uncertainty and disruptive change.

So this week’s question: when we say “the pace of change is accelerating”, what exactly do we mean by that, and how can that be proved?

Video
Another example of a cracking concept combined with an excellent execution (provided you’re already passingly familiar with the work of Tom Waits and the Cookie Monster):


Link

The extraordinary API-linking service that acts like internet duct-tape, If This Then That (which I mentioned back in July when talking about how I find things on the internet) has now properly launched. They explain it pretty well on this aptly named page. One of the hardest things to do with IFTTT is work out what you should do with it, so rather brilliantly you can now see a list of the most popular tasks. (Personally I use it to cross-post my webcomic to Tumblr, email myself a reminder to do various things at the end of the month, and to add Twitter favourites to Read It Later).


Another video
That was technically a link I have shared earlier, so here’s something else: a rather nice video of people base jumping in some particularly ridiculous ways. However, the soundtrack gives the impression that they are striving to achieve something important for all of humanity, when in fact it’s pure, senseless, wonderful frivolity. As such, I recommend using a Dan Deacon soundtrack, which I conveniently provide for you below to play at the same time. (Dan Deacon is not to everyone’s taste though, so feel free to substitute your own flavour of insanely optimistic music).

For those that haven’t done this before: hit play and pause on both videos to get them streaming. Turn down the volume on the base jumpers to zero. Then when you’ve got enough streaming going on, hit play on both, and fullscreen the base jumpers.

Note that in terms of content, both videos take about a minute to kick off properly, so if you’re impatient then jump to ~50s into each one first.

There. Much better!


Quote

Very surprised I never came across this one from John Adams before:

“It is more important that innocence be protected than it is that guilt be punished, for guilt and crimes are so frequent in this world that they cannot all be punished. But if innocence itself is brought to the bar and condemned, perhaps to die, then the citizen will say, “whether I do good or whether I do evil is immaterial, for innocence itself is no protection,” and if such an idea as that were to take hold in the mind of the citizen that would be the end of security whatsoever.”

Rather satisfyingly (in a TV Tropes kind of way) this general idea is filed under Blackstone’s Formulation.


Last Week’s Question – Nothing to Hide?
Last week I asked for tweetable responses to the argument, “If you have nothing to hide then you have nothing to fear”, and got an impressive range of responses.

Xuan somewhat flippantly shot back:

“I have nothing to hide but a lot to lose so piss off Big Brother”

Simon says “nothing to hide” is wrong because it

“…presupposes that the reason someone desire[s] privacy is to conceal a wrong. What if people want privacy for other reasons?”

This is similar to my own thinking, which is essentially that privacy as a notion is a counterargument in itself. Hence my own answers along the lines of:

“If you have nothing to hide, why do you have curtains?”

“If you have nothing to hide, you’re not representative of the majority”

Richard pointed out that at the peak of the Wikileaks hubbub, this tweet did the rounds:

“Dear government: as you keep telling us, if you’ve done nothing wrong, you’ve got nothing to fear #wikileaks”

On a similar note, Rik points out that this is a good time to quote Juvenal:

“Who watches the watchmen?”

This neatly digs out the hidden assumption of “nothing to hide”, which is that the people you might hide something from can themselves be relied upon to act on that information “correctly” (whatever that may mean). However, this argument is a double-edged sword. The strongest reading (as I see it) is that the very idea of watchmen hides a kind of Gödelian paradox (after all, who would watch the people watching the watchmen?). But if you interpret it more simply it suggests that the answer to bad surveillance is good surveillance.

Or put another way: it seems to suggest that problems with surveillance can be solved by adding more surveillance. Given that surveillance already has that feedback loop baked-in (if crimes take place out of sight of CCTV then naturally you solve this by having more CCTV), this counterargument might not actually help.

A more direct line of attack might be to use extreme examples of Watchmen we may not feel comfortable about, for which I suggest:

“In Orwell’s 1984, should Winston Smith have anything to fear from Big Brother?”

“Would you still have nothing to hide if an extremist party formed part of the ruling coalition?”

Finally, Adam has a different approach:

“Given enough information I can make anyone look guilty”

An idea we’ve seen in various political and journalistic thrillers is that everyone has something that you could expose to damage their reputation, but Adam’s argument takes this a step further. This also confronts the above mentioned feedback loop of increasing surveillance head-on. As Adam says:

As […] data on each person grows, so too does the scope for misuse, misinterpretion and misidentity. […] No individual fact could be incorrect, but they could be formed into a picture that is, as it is known that people look for facts that meet their beliefs, and with enough information this could be achieved an alarmingly high proportion of the time…

That’s my favourite answer so far, although it does need people to buy into some form of Blackstone’s formulation (see above John Adams quote). This will be an argument to refer back to over the coming years I suspect.

There’s much more to say on this, but that will have to wait for another blog post.