Things March 2015: Cap D, Bad Advice, The Books, Tube Trivia

I like to share individually great things in Things. But some people just churn out consistently great things, no one of which stands out as a notably better thing… and as a result, they don’t tend to feature in Things. So, this Things is all about those things.

Captain Disillusion

I originally linked to a Captain D video way back in Things 17, but his recent launch on Patreon reminded me that really just about all of his stuff is great, so you should see it.

The Books

If you like the idea of music formed out of obscure samples layered up with surreal folk and an electronic sensibility, The Books are about twice as awesome as you could have hoped. Now no longer together, they leave us with four albums and sense of fathomless loss. Some highlights:

The Animated Description of Mr Maps – notable for the striking synchronisation of percussion and speech at 2’30”:


Take Time – a great example of how they weave samples from a mix of sources to create a strangely resonant overall effect:


Bad Advisor

The Bad Advisor is a Tumblr founded on the observation that in some publications, people write in to advice columns clearly looking for endorsement of terrible decisions they have already made. I used to think sarcasm the lowest form of wit, but the Bad Advisor elevates it to new heights by posting responses explicitly giving the bad advice that was sought.

Some sample moments might help. Concluding remarks on “Help, Our Daughter Believes She Has A Right To Define The Terms Of Her Own Lived Experience“:

It’s strange and disappointing that your daughter has decided to become “cold and uncommunicative” toward her parents, when all you did was inform her that she’s a lying liar whose entire life is a sham and that you prefer the company of the man she says has abused her for the entirety of her adult life so far to entertaining the possibility that your mean old daughter isn’t just trolling everyone she knows for fun, but who knows why an apple would fall from a rotten, crumbling tree and then try to get the everloving fuck away from said rotten, crumbling tree, gravity is a huge mystery and no one knows how it works.

On the subject of “The Only Thing I Love More Than Accepting People For Who They Are Is Telling Them What To Wear When They’re In My Presence“:

The whole entire population of planet earth anxiously awaits your ruling on how they should act and dress in your presence, lest a pair of slacks singularly usher in the end of everything you have ever known or held dear. After all, what if someone thinks your sister-in-law is a man, and then they saw you hanging out with your sister-in-law, thinking she was a man that you were hanging out with?????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????

Just go check out the whole archive, and be sure to read the tags at the bottom of each post which sometimes serve as a kind of Tumblr-version of the mouse-over-text-style extra punchline.


Londonist Londonist: Secrets of the London Tube

A lovely series of videos documenting interesting things about each of London’s tube lines. There’s some nice easter eggs and twists revealed when you make it to the Waterloo & City:



Transmission ends


Things 129: Kids Special (Strange Hill High, Octonauts, The Phoenix)

People tend to assume children’s entertainment isn’t as good as it was when they were young, probably due to a three-pronged attack of rose-tinted nostalgia, the best shows being renewed (Sesame Street) or repeated (Bagpuss) so giving each new generation a sense of ownership over them, and poor curation for adults out of the current crop.

Recognising that this is a highly subjective enterprise, I’m going to pick out a few good examples of current kids fare in attempt to at least fix the latter. There’s even a kid-entertainment-based puzzle at the end.

TV Series with Puppets: Strange Hill High
I occasionally take a look at current children’s TV to see what sort of animation techniques are being used, and Strange Hill High caught my attention through its fascinating combination of designer-vinyl-toy-style puppets combined with CG mouth animation.

The premise is entirely encoded in the name so I won’t bother to elaborate on that. Most importantly, it actually makes me laugh a few times per episode, which can’t be said of many other TV series. To be fair, 90% of it is fairly standard kids ‘comedy’, but it’s sufficiently fast paced that I don’t mind sitting through that to get to the other 10%.

If you seek reassurance from known quantities, it also features the voice of Richard Ayoade (The IT Crowd), and the head of the writing team is Josh Weinstein (The Simpsons).

It’s on iPlayer right now (I recommend starting with 99 cool things to do with a time machine), and you can start to get a bit of a flavour (though not really enough) from the opening few minutes:

Picture Books: Octonauts
Again, I first engaged with this franchise through the graphical design: I was impressed by the stylishness of their bath toys. It turns out there’s a whole CG animated series, which is quite good (mostly due to the use of regional accents), but it all started with a series of charmingly whimsical picture books. Here’s a few snippets to give you an idea:

Decoding the language of a sad fish:

Pictures that glow in the dark (from this book), which it turns out fascinate me just as much as when I was a kid:

Weekly comic: The Phoenix
Now I look back on it, more than anything The Beano looks like a primer on culture, mapping out the tropes and stereotypes of an idealised sort of pre-war age (vicars having tea, go-carts, hi-jinks, the threat of The Slipper), equipping the child with the reference points needed to navigate modern entertainment, while keeping said child entertained with a never-ending stream of speech bubbles that all end in exclamation marks (I only noticed this years later, and haven’t been able to read more than a few pages at once since).

The Phoenix is a modern kids comic that’s nothing like that. For one thing, it features work by James Turner, who I’ve featured in Things before (with this mind-bending 9-panel comic).

It’s also got a bunch of other surprisingly good stuff. Bunny vs Monkey by Jamie Smart features high-quality hijinks like this and ever so often will just go incredibly dark, like this:

For being simultaneously educational and entertaining, I’ve never seen better than Corpse Talk by Adam Murphy, in which he interviews the reanimated corpses of the “dead famous”, and doesn’t really sugar-coat things that much:

There’s wonderful art by Lorenzo in Long Gone Don:

Finally, ‘Professor Panels’ by Neill Cameron teaches kids to make their own comics, sometimes delightfully deconstructing the form, such as the episode in which a mecha-comic-creating-monkey starts to misfire when a banana is added to its workings:

If you’re interested, do check out their website, which has a free digital issue, a link to the iPad app, a starter pack you could buy, and a bunch of other good stuff.

Video: Tune-Yards My Country
I like this music, and the video is pretty good too. Be sure to stick around for the funky syncopated brass solo around 2’40”.

Puzzle: The Perfect Power-up Purchase Path
The LEGO console games are aimed at children, but provide some solid co-op entertainment for adults too, especially if you derive pleasure from smashing things and collecting coins – or in the LEGO-themed parlance of the game, ‘studs’.

In many (all?) of them, studs collected in the course of play can be used to purchase various upgrades. One such upgrade is the ‘x2’, which once bought, doubles the value of all the studs you subsequently collect – so a level where you might collect 100,000 studs will instead net you 200,000. There are other similar upgrades, like the ‘x4’, which multiplies by 4 – and they apply cumulatively, so if you have both x2 and x4, you get an 8 times multiplier, so that level would now net you 800,000 studs.

Naturally, the more powerful multipliers are more expensive to buy… but having a multiplier will help you save up for the others more quickly. Here’s a price list:

  • x2 = 1 million studs
  • x4 = 2m
  • x6 = 3m
  • x8 = 4m
  • x10 = 5m

So, the question naturally arises: if you want to eventually purchase all 5 of these multpliers, what order should you buy them in? (In case you were wondering, yes, they really do keep accumulating, so when you have them all you have a 2 x 4 x 6 x 8 x 10 = 3,840-times multiplier).

For the more mathematically inclined: what is the generic strategy for any multiplier series f and pricing series g? For the more game-design inclined: if you really wanted to encourage children to do some maths, how would you design the pricing for these multipliers? Alternatively, if you wanted to make the game as fun as possible, what multipliers and prices would you set?

Answer: Spoilers Sometimes Matter
Last time I asked if we could really believe research demonstrating that spoilers always improve enjoyment. The consensus seems pretty clear – even though ‘mystery’ and ‘twist ending’ stories were included in the research, it nonetheless seems very likely that there exist a few counter-example stories in which experiencing them unspoiled adds a tremendous amount to the experience. Since one can’t tell reliably tell which these are in advance, it seems wiser to err on the side of caution, and continue to avoid spoilers.

-Transmission Finally Ends


Things 116: Cloud Phase Time-Lapse, 3D Map, Better Tube Map

Point a camera at the sky, create a time lapse video of the clouds. Do the same thing every day of the year. Play back all the videos simultaneously in a grid. Voilà: a kind of phase-diagram visualisation, with seconds representing minutes and space representing seasons. Brilliant.

More detail here. Via Data Pointed.

This is apparently pretty old, and with Google Earth and Street View already taken for granted it’s difficult to appreciate how impressive this is: in-browser 3D maps of major cities by Nokia. A plugin is required, and the sad thing is that I imagine that small barrier is enough to vastly reduce the number of people that will actually try it out.

Various incarnations of the London tube map regularly feature in Things: in the past I’ve posted about a to-scale tube map, a curvy tube map, and a travel-time interactive tube map.

Unsurprisingly, I rather like Mark Noad’s version, which is an ambitious attempt to make a tube map that is not just interestingly different but actually better than the current canonical version. By retaining the simplicity of design but improving geographic accuracy, I would say it succeeds.

This week, a very first world problem. If voice recognition software fails to understand something you say (e.g. Google voice search, xBox 360 Kinect voice commands, or Siri), what do you do? Having had this happen a few times now, I’m very aware that the natural human response of just saying the same thing but louder might not actually be the best thing to do. (I also imagine my neighbours don’t need to hear me shouting “Xbox go back! Xbox! Go! Back! Xbox go frickin’ back! Fine, don’t then!”)

For example, other approaches to ensure your input is recognised could include: reduce background noise; enunciate more clearly; speak in a monotone; move closer to or further away from the microphone; use a different phrasing; or attempt to put on an American accent.

Which of these is most likely to work? Is there a better approach that I’ve not included here? Is just speaking loudly actually the best approach after all?

Or is the failure rate of voice recognition inevitable and unacceptable in most contexts, and the whole notion flawed from the outset?



Things 114: Kern Test, Robot Bird, Social Graph, Too Soon To Say

This week, try testing your ability to kern.

If you liked that, try the splines.

It’s easy to get overexcited about human progress, when in the grand scheme of things we’re still pretty small fry. I would periodically remind myself of this by considering that for all our ingenuity, we still couldn’t make a robot the size of a bird that could fly like a bird. Thanks to the determined efforts of Festo, I’m going to need to come up with something else.

I’ve seen this link crop up in a few places now, but for good reason – I think this is some really important stuff that we are collectively getting wrong on a large scale right now: “The Social Graph is Neither” by maciej.

Cutting large swathes of great text for concision, here’s my favourite part of the  argument:

[…] declaring relationships explicitly is a social act […] Social graph proponents seem uninterested in th[is] signaling problem. […] [and] how does cutting ties actually work socially? […]  In real life, all relationships fade naturally if you don’t maintain them, but right now social networks preserve ties in amber until we explicitly break them […] Can I unfollow my ex now, or is that going to make her think I’m still hung up on her?

[…] You might almost think that the whole scheme had been cooked up by a bunch of hyperintelligent but hopelessly socially naive people, and you would not be wrong.

However, after a lot of good stuff, it ends with something of a shrug:

It’s just a matter of waiting things out, and leaving ourselves enough freedom to find some interesting, organic, and human ways to bring our social lives online.

I’m not sure that’s quite the right way to put it. I don’t think it’s about bringing our social lives online. Its more about augmenting our social lives with online functionality that goes with the grain of human nature.

That said, leaving ourselves enough freedom is critical. Quite how we do that is a topic for another day.

In the early 1970’s, Richard Nixon asked Zhou Enlai what he thought of the French Revolution. Zhou notoriously responded:

It is too soon to say.

Which everyone thought was quite wonderfully representative of Chinese sagacity.

This year it emerged that the whole thing was a misunderstanding too delicious to invite correction, as Zhou thought Nixon was referring to the much more recent student riots in Paris.

But this doesn’t matter, because the misread quote still stands as a useful reminder that we should err towards taking a longer-term view when evaluating the benefits of things. On a similar note, Ben Hecht says:

Trying to determine what is going on in the world by reading newspapers is like trying to tell the time by watching the second hand of a clock.

Last Week’s Question
Last week I asked: when someone says “next Thursday” on a Monday, which Thursday do they mean?

Richard’s response was the same as mine – always clarify. However, where I was aware of two interpretations, he identified three [This part added thanks to Richard’s clarification – T.M. 25/11/11]:

I have come across three possible scenarios:


(a) this = first occurrence, next = second occurrence
(b) this = occurrence in the week you’re in, next = occurrence in the following week
(c) this = occurrence in the week you’re in, next = first occurrence


I don’t think anyone actually uses (a).
Personally I use (b).
I have met people who use (c).


To give some examples, on a Tuesday, referring to “This Monday”
and “Next Monday”.


(a) This Monday = 6 days times, Next Monday = 13 days time
(b) This Monday = -1 days time, Next Monday = 6 days time
(c) This Monday = -1 days time, Next Monday = 6 days time


I can’t think of anyone who would use (a).  (b) and (c) agree.


Another example, on a Tuesday, referring to “This Friday” and
“Next Friday”.


(a) This Friday = 3 days times, Next Friday = 10 days time
(b) This Friday = 3 days time, Next Friday = 10 days time
(c) This Friday = 3 days time, Next Friday = 3 days time


(a) is indistinguishable from (b), hence somewhere who is a (c)
might assume upon hearing (b) that their algorithm is actually
(a).  I would use (b).  I have met people who use (c).

However, I now wonder if this is paranoia – how divided are we really on this issue? Do the vast majority of people use one of these interpretations? My plan is to start to collect instances of people using this form of date referral, noting on which weekday it was said, and which day they were intending to refer to. I’ll report the results here when I have enough data, which may take a few years.