Monday, 21 December 2015

The Science of Everyday Thinking on EdX

I had the pleasure of completing 'The Science of Everyday Thinking' on EdX recently. The course deals with a lot of stuff i've been thinking about for the past few years, so I noted a lot of my thoughts.


The course begins by stressing that it is really difficult to put yourself in the shoes of others. We over estimate the abilities of others to know what we know. An example of this is when we tap out a song on a table. We expect 25% of people to guess the song correctly but in reality only 2.5% do.

We're great at pattern recognition, maybe even too good at it. Things float to the top of our minds that match our expectations, so we see real effects in noisy data, for example -  a face on toast. We sharpen things to what we expect to see - the 'expectancy effect' - and level those that we don't.

The course also stresses on how faulty memory can be. Memory is not like a video camera. Every time we remember something we reconstruct past events in our mind. I have had personal experience with this when helping one of my classmates at uni with false memory experiments. It was interesting to see how people really believed that they had seen something when they hadn't. I do this to, which is why I now write down certain events immediately after they happen so I don't get sequences of events mixed up.

We exhibit Naive Realism - we think the world is as we perceive it to be. This is wrong.

We exhibit fundamental cognitive error - we tend to underestimate the contribution of our beliefs and theories to observation and judgement, and fail to realise how many other ways that they could have been interpreted. 

Know Yourself

Planning fallacy - we are terrible at planning or judgement-making or self-assessment. Examples are driving, attractiveness & morals. Even though we fall on a bell curve for some of these, and 50% of the population falls below the median, we are incapable of accepting that we could be in the bottom half. Statistically speaking we all have to be under 50% at some point, but we will never admit it.

I've seen this first hand when planning my own goals. Many a time, I've planned out a journey assuming I'd be ready by a certain time only to find I've taken longer to get ready. I overestimate my own ability to be ready in time. It's the same with my learning goals. I keep subscribing to the belief that I am a super-fast learner and can do multiple courses at once, and I always end up struggling with too many things on my plate. I've learned to cut back and take things slower. No one can be great at everything. I've also seen this when proof-reading for foreign students au University. Students would be incredulous at the number of mistakes I found in their writing and the amount of re-writing that was required. They thought their grammar was decent, when it wasn't. Their unrealistic expectations were tied to incorrect evaluations of their own abilities.

The false-consensus effect - we overestimate the extent to which our beliefs are typical of those of others. We believe that other people generally think like us. Important to be reminded that this is not the case.

People don't even know what makes them happy. The true reasons people are happy are usually different from the reasons they provide. I need to do a separate post of happiness as I'm currently researching this. 

Job interviews are usually bad because of confirmation bias - interviewers see what they expect to see. They make up their mind about a candidate soon after they meet them and then only ask questions that confirm their beliefs. Structured interviews, where every candidate is asked the same question, are better. 

People tend to exaggerate the long term emotion effects that events have on us. In reality, emotional trauma can have bad effects on us but for the most part we tend to over-emphasise their effects.

People have a strong 'order effect' when selecting from an identical pool - they mostly pick what's on the right. And then they don't believe the reason why -  which shows that we don't know ourselves well. We don't even know why we make certain choices.

Intuition and Rationality

Kahneman differentiates between System 1 and system 2 thinking i.e intuition and rational thought.

The Anchoring Effect is powerful - but be careful of noise in the data.

The Representativeness Heuristic - the frequency or likelihood of an event by the extent to which it resembles the typical case.

But from a practical point of view, do be careful of thinking too statistically - in the Rudy the farmer  example, where there are far more farmers than lawyers, statistically it would make sense to pick farmer as the option but a bit more context would propbably point towards one of the other options like lawyer.


I really enjoyed this part of the course as I could take away more from this part than any other. Keys to learning better are to - 

Distribute practice over time - spacing helps. 
Set calendar reminders.
Use Retrieval practice - instead of merely re-reading material, cover and try to recall it.
Learn by doing - practice and discuss the content.
Vary the settings in which learning takes place.
Relate learning to your everyday experiences.

An important thing to remember is to not mistake fluency with learning. If you're finding a new topic too easy, you're probably not learning it well enough. You only think you understand it.


Beware the Gamblers Fallacy.

Apple's shuffle feature - people don't understand how randomisation works, Apple had to make their product less random so people would perceive it as being more random even though it wasn't.

Finding Things Out

Many phenomena are simply examples of Regression towards the Mean - things balance out. This is more apparent when there is more noise in measurement.

Also, Post hoc ergo propter hoc - we assume a causes b because b followed a. It's kind of like those other common biases that make us believe in superstitions, like correlation is not causation, or false premise reasoning, or circular reasoning.

Experiments show that for most competencies, there is no diff between large and small class sizes.

Six leads to opinion change -

What do you really believe anyway?
How well based is your belief?
How good is the evidence?
Does the evidence really contradict what you believe?
What would be enough to change your mind?
Is it worth finding out about?

Extraordinary Claims

There are multiple ways you can interpret things.

Question your intuitions and be willing to give them up.

People tend to accept information that is consistent with their pre-existing beliefs at face value, but critically scrutinise information that contradicts their beliefs.
Health Claims

Pseudo-scientists tend to make ambiguous statements that you can contort to your expectations.

The Placebo Effect can be a false positive response, but most are Regression to the Mean. People seek help when they are sickest.

The Availability Heuristic - if a treatment turned out negative, you would never hear about it. 

Like cures like - a diluted part of the disease can cure the disease - is a common false belief. 

Natural is not necessarily better - arsenic is not good for you, indoor plumbing is.

Clustered disease is possibly the availability heuristic. You're confusing normal randomness and noise for an actual effect. You need to create and test a hypothesis to determine if a true effect like cancer clusters exist in a population.

Always ask - what about the other 3 cells? Given that you can have true positives, true negatives, false positives and false negatives, always look at the costs and benefits of the two ways that you can be wrong.

Applied Claims

For example - facilitated communication, forensic science, conspiracy theories, gun laws, gay marriage, asylum seekers.

The Expectancy Effect affects interpretation of forensic evidence like DNA. Experts who expect or desire to see something see the evidence in ways that are consistent with what they want to see - this is in part helpful, but can be disastrous.

People tend to focus exclusively on what they consider to be the evidence.

Belief in conspiracy theories is mostly cherry picking information.

False consensus effect - everyone thinks that everyone agrees with them.

Exploiting the Situation

There is not much correlation between personality and cheating, it is more about the situation. Certain situations can encourage honesty. 

Social conformity, the bystander effect, attribution error.

We assume that the way we see the World is the only way to see the world and anyone else that sees it differently is wrong and we attribute it to their  education, personal biases, propaganda, lower intelligence.

Milgram experiment - authority factor, diffusion of responsibility factor, channel factor (increase in shocks in incremental steps), no clear exit.

Nudging changes the channel factors to induce behavioural change.

Putting it all together

Be aware of your intuitions.
Have a healthy skepticism.
Simulate your future desirable performance in the present.
Test hypotheses.
Pick a few areas where you want to change what you're doing w.r.t thinking and personal biases, and focus on those.
Just because something is portrayed confidently doesn't mean it's true.


I really enjoyed the course. I initially felt that the instructors spent way too much time on discussing personal biases and our inability to be objective and accurate with our perceptions and beliefs, and that they were repeating these points through the first half of the course, but I see now how useful and essential this was. Indeed, only good can come from these constant reminders.

Throughout the course, I was reminded of the biases people use to justify their superstitions and irrational beliefs, and why they won't change their minds even after being presented with evidence. For some reason or another, people will believe what they want to believe, and then pick and choose evidence to confirm that belief. They will see patterns where there are none because that is what they would expect of that belief. It helps if the belief is vague to begin with. This makes it easier to confuse noise for a true effect. They will assume that everyone should think this way. They will not understand that everything they see and interpret this way can be interpreted in many different ways by different people. They will not accept that their beliefs are a result of critical reasoning flaws or cognitive biases, nor be willing to test and verify their beliefs experimentally.


Wednesday, 22 April 2015

Learning by Context

Education is not the simple direct process people think it is.

When you give a kid 10 encyclopaedias, he/she doesn't learn them all by heart. People, including children learn and remember by context. By memorable information. 

I had over a dozen encyclopaedias and general knowledge books reference books when I was younger. I simply used look at the pictures and read a little of the text if the pictures looked interesting enough. That's a lesson for learning designers. Focus on visual information and cues as much as possible. As little text as possible.

But that's not all. You still have 500 pages in your book full of information that the reader really has no reason to be interested in. Which is why that information has to be put in context that's interesting to the reader. My books were full of information about dinosaurs, but I had no reason to remember this information until I began playing Top Trumps card games about dinosaurs. It was the same with animals, cars, bikes and football. Playing these card games gave me a reference point for these topics. Browsing through my humongous books now became a slightly more productive exercise, as I'd stop to read and learn a little more about dinosaurs, animals cars or bikes when a picture caught my eye.

This is why children need to be exposed to as many specific stimuli as possible. Let them develop their own likes and ideas. Then back these up with a lot of easy reference material. Both of these are essential for building knowledge. Just one is not enough. A person is more apt to learn about Ancient Greek mythology when they have watched a film or cartoon about it and then a book or Wikipedia. Wikipedia itself would be next to useless. Because there's no motivating factor in studying a lot of information. The film provides context, and reference points that the book builds on.


Monday, 13 April 2015

Interesting Links


Tuesday, 7 April 2015

Making Sense of the World

Imagine the following three possible frameworks or models used to make sense of the universe, this world, and all behaviour and actions.


This universe was created by a race of aliens from another universe or dimension. Perhaps they exist outside of space and time (whatever that means). They either created or monitor all activity on earth. Perhaps they have ways of understanding and following human desires, or perhaps they interfere in human activity, according to their whims and fancies, or maybe not.


This universe is a function of the Matrix. It is an artificial construct, a virtual reality built by citizens of the future, human or robot, as a giant experiment or project of value. As such, our existence is really just our consciousness responding to whatever 'they' want us to see. Our bodies are either plugged into machines somewhere in the future, or we only exist in digital form.


This universe was created by the Abrahamic God. He exists outside or space and time. He hears and sees everything. He chooses to answer or ignore prayer. He has a plan for everyone. His ways are mysterious.


These are your three frameworks. I made up two of them, with inspiration from the media. The third is a commonly espoused belief system. Here's my question - what makes the third model any less ridiculous than the first two?

Granted, my description of all three were brief. But you are free to build on all three. If your goal in choosing a belief system, framework or world view is 'does this make sense?' or 'does this prove useful?' or 'does this explain everything in this world?', then all three frameworks are equally useful.

Take any physical law or phenomenon like gravity or electromagnetism. Take any biochemical unit or process like cell or an organ system. Take any aspect of human or animal behaviour like jealousy or altruism. Any of the three frameworks could be used to explain these facets of our world. They can all be used to explain economic productivity, evolution, tsunamis and genocide. 

All the three models are somewhat vague, and that proves advantageous. Being vague means the model explains more variation. The more specific the model is, the easier it is to undermine. You could explain away any bizarre phenomenon into the variation that the model accommodates. And since it accommodates everything in its vagueness, the model is never wrong.

Do you see the problem here? All three models cannot be correct. And these are just three. The number of models you could invent to explain variation in what you observe is infinite. How do you tell right from wrong?

'All models are wrong, some are useful'. We use models that useful to us. We don't really care how right they are. We use a model because we find it useful. Because it makes sense to us in our specific context. But if all three models are equally useful, then why prefer one over the other? Is it because only one is the product of historical thought and cultural evolution, and the other two are more recent and more clearly 'fake'?

We think prayer works because it works for us, and that's enough. We don't seem to care that historical data shows us that affliction and death rates for polio, smallpox and cancer have no relationship with prayer. That irrespective of how holy you were or how hard you prayed, if you had cancer in 1900, you would likely die. That cancer survival rates have more to do with the invention of surgery, radiation and chemotherapy than anything else.

Perhaps it is best to go beyond retrospective usefulness in picking the right model, seeing as how any speculative thought can account for all variation in observable phenomena. Perhaps we should stop asking 'how much variation does this model explain?' and instead ask 'how much predictive validity does this model have?'

Any made up theory can explain what you see around you. It doesn't matter if the model involves God, aliens, AI, time travelling robots, space monkeys, or a new scientific theory. All these models or frameworks can seem equally 'valid' or 'right' in that they have an explanation for everything, answers to all your questions.

To decide which model is right, or to create a better model, it seem much more intuitive to base that model only on the evidence you have, incomplete as it is, and then test it and continually modify it by making predictions, admitting all along the way that your model will always be imperfect and a work in progress.


In 50 years, when we do develop a vaccine or cure for AIDS, the same people who call AIDS a punishment from God will be thanking God for answering their prayers and curing people. It's easy to validate any model using retrospective post-hoc rationalisation, especially if your model was vague to begin with, you never tested it by making specific predictions, and you're making it up as you go along, avoiding any attempt at testing your beliefs and instead picking and choosing facts that seem to fit into your pre-existing framework and ignoring everything else or considering it a test of your faith.


Thursday, 2 April 2015

On Poverty

A lot of us don't realise this but it is really difficult to get out of poverty, even if you really want to. 

There are a lot of economically disadvantaged people out there who are smart and hardworking and have the means to remove themselves from poverty. And they do so very slowly. Because it's not an easy process. Let's say you work a double shift for six months and save up a bit of money, and then suddenly a family member gets sick, and of course they don't have health insurance because you can't afford the monthly payments. So all your savings are blown away. Or imagine you've been saving for six months and then just when you're going to use that money to get to the next stage, start a business, invest in something that will grow your money for you, you meet with an accident, or you're robbed, or you need to buy a new fridge or washing machine. Your savings are gone along with your plans. You're back to square one.

Because something bad always happens. This is what it's like to be poor. It's always one step forward, one step back, and so on. The rest of us don't experience this because we're rich, relatively speaking. We have a cushion. We have money in the bank that we can use to buy a new AC, fridge or washing machine. We always have enough money for healthcare. We have relatives we can borrow money from, networks of friends and ex-colleagues we can use to find a new job. We have cushions. The poor don't. These cushions serve to keep us from stumbling, they keep our careers moving forward and not grinding to a halt every time something bad happens. This is why I don't get how people look down on the poor as if it's their fault, like they are lazy. They aren't. No one likes being poor. They're working to get out of it. You just can't see it because of your privilege.

So how do you get rid of poverty? You could increase wages. Imagine a janitor in Sweden. He gets a minimum wage that's enough to afford a home. He's not rich, but he makes ends meet. Same with the UK or US. Now imagine a janitor in Mumbai. His wage, even if above minimum, would be nowhere near enough to rent a flat. So he lives in a slum. He saves more that way. Could the government enforce a minimum wage that's high enough so everyone can afford proper housing and not live in a slum? Sure, but employers would pass that burden back to customers. We would eventually pay more for items, and would want higher pay ourselves to cover the difference. Which isn't a bad thing. We would all earn more, and pay more more some things. For people doing menial work, their savings would be low but their living conditions would be decent. The rest of us would have higher pay and higher expenditure and our savings would be proportional. More importantly, we would all be living in a country with a higher standard of living, and no slums.

Or we could just leave it all up to market forces. The problem with this is that in a country with fewer opportunities, and less competition, employers can pay as little as they want, if they know there aren't any alternatives for you. They can always claim that people are free not to work for them if they find the salaries too low. This might be fair to the employer, but not to workers, because they live in a country with few opportunities by default, so they really have no where else to go to, and they can't all start their own businesses overnight because they are mostly disadvantaged to begin with. So they settle with being exploited because some pay is better than no pay. 

That's how rich people like Donald Trump end up legally getting even richer by building large buildings in the Middle East using voluntary 'slave labour', people who are too poor to do anything else and who aren't even allowed to keep their passports. Is it their fault their country didn't give them enough opportunity? Is it their own fault they were not smart enough to get rich on their own?

If you want to live in a developed country you need to remove absolute poverty. Relative poverty will always exist in a capitalist system, and that's OK as long as inequalities don't create further absolute poverty or lead to monopolies that create status quo institutions that can lead to exploitation. You could remove poverty by raising the minimum wage, ensuring that everyone has a liveable income. This by itself will only do some good. In Indian cities like Mumbai, it will enable to people to live in better places, or let them grow their savings. 

The government could just subsidise education completely of course. It already does that to a large extent. But that won't cure poverty on its own. If you waved a magic want and gave every Indian a PhD tomorrow, they still wouldn't have the ecosystem to use their skills. There would still be massive unemployment. You can't stop at education. You also need an environment that demands new skills, that serves as a market for these skills, so people can exchange their skills for money. 

They would also need a market that enables them to finance themselves and create their products easily. You could reduce bureaucratic procedures and other red tape involved in growing businesses, and incentivise patents and loans, to encourage self-employment and innovation. In the long term, this would create more jobs, and in turn serve as a motivator for people to up skill themselves, which would get them higher salaries, and better lifestyles. 


Wednesday, 4 February 2015

On International Politics and World Peace

Back in the 90's when I was in school and the US imposed sanctions on India for its nuclear tests, we cried hypocrisy. How could the US punish India for building nuclear weapons when the US also stockpiles them? I've come a long way since then, but only after a lot of self-education, education which I unfortunately didn't receive in school. 

Self interest and game theory

The thing about international politics and diplomacy is, no political action is a result of principles, other than those associated with self-interest. This is a historical fact. Countries do not build alliances or rivalries based on principles, they do so based on what maximises their own self-interest. 

This can be modelled using game theory. Draw a checker box. Put one player on the x axis, and the other one on the y axis. On each player's axis, list the name of the interaction i.e. cooperating, trading, going to war, etc., with the the player. Now in each box on the checkerboard, enter the values of one players's action given the other players action. These could be positive, negative or zero values. For example, the value of player 1 going to war while player 2 is at peace might give player one a high payoff and player 2 a negative payoff. Whereas the payoff to the players if they both decide to trade with each other could result in each of them getting an even higher payoff compared to the payoff that one got by attacking the other. In this way, countries pick the box with the highest value for themselves. The cost-benefit equation is of course more complicated than this, as any political scientist or economist will tell you. Like a giant live chess board of life, each country has to look at the best way to maximise its own interests in real time. The main difference is that chess is a zero sum game, whereas in politics more than one country can win.

This is the real driver behind political policy and action. When you look at history afresh after having learned this, you find no reason to use infantile terms and phrases like "we're friends with this country", "these countries have always been friendly", "these countries are enemies", etc. Another thing you feel no need to do is to cry hypocrisy at the actions of other countries - "this country is being hypocritical". 

When the US imposes sanctions on other countries for conducting nuclear tests when they themselves own an arsenal of nuclear weapons, this might be technical hypocrisy, but that's missing the point. The US does it because it's in their interest to do so. When you have nuclear weapons, it makes sense to prevent countries that are not aligned to you from obtaining the same weapons. It's just good strategy. Countries are only allies because it's in their mutual benefit to be allies. Because it pays to be allies more than it does to be something else. Here's another example - when the US commits to religious tolerance but backs Pakistan and Saudi Arabia with military aid. This isn't hypocrisy in a political sense. You say what you need to for votes, to define your value system (all countries run on value systems) but your actions have to be concurrent with good strategy, with game theory. In the end, self-interest wins out. 

How countries evolved

If every country had to follow principle-based politics, the world would be a better place, as long as every country agreed to follow the same principles. But they don't. Countries that exist today didn't exist 10000 years ago. We started off as nomads and hunter gatherers. Over time, different groups of people came together because division of labour made sense. These different groups had different principles, but they all focused on maximising their payoffs, whatever they were. Groups with different resources decided to trade with others as they both needed resources that the other had. Some developed a trusting relationship based on reciprocal cooperation, they didn't need to safeguard themselves against each other militarily. 

But what if there's a change of leadership and policy? Now one civilisation grows stronger, and begins to conquer more land and people. The other civilisation has a choice, do they ignore the first one, join forces with it, let themselves be conquered and assimilated, or turn into conquerers themselves to avoid being taken over? Also, military might isn't the only tool to use in your defence. There's also religion, which makes cultural assimilation easier, and economic conquest, where countries subjugate each other economically. Trusting your neighbour explicitly means giving them a chance to exploit you, and you won't do that if you think there's a chance that they will. Replay this scene for different groups across thousands of years, and through numerous conflict and death, we have the world today, fragmented groups with different value systems and ideals, terrified of being exploited or losing out. Hence, there's not much trust.

Self interest and trust

Which is not to say that trust doesn't exist. It does, but it comes about when it's in the players' self interest. The US and Canada can have a porous border because there's very little risk of a war breaking out between them because they have been at peace for so long and have reached numerous lucrative trade agreements in the process. If this peace was broken by say, America invading Canada and taking even some of their land, it would hurt trade, and Canada might align itself with an enemy of USA. It pays to keep your neighbours as allies to act as buffers between your other enemies. What we call international trust is ultimately all about money and security. Self-interest wins.

Here's another example - the Nordic countries being at peace. Denmark, Finland, Sweden and Norway all have porous borders, as do other European countries. The likelihood of a country misusing this trust and upsetting the status quo is low because the consequences would be dire. Border security would be strengthened, relations would sour, money would be lost, everyone would suffer. The payoffs from committing such an action wouldn't justify the costs. This is why the Nordic countries are at peace. They weren't always at peace. A long time ago they were at each others throats. But back then, it paid to conquer and kill each other more than it did to trade and cooperate freely. This also explains why Russia recently annexed part of Ukraine. The payoff (in terms of access to resources and trade routes) exceeded the cost (meagre threats from NATO?). Self-interests wins.

The situation today

Look at the two major power blocks today - the US and China. It used to be the US and the USSR. Preceding World War 2, the US was just another country gaining affluence through trade and innovation. Following World War 2, it emerged as a dominant superpower and its alliances with a number of European partners was sealed. But competition emerged with the USSR, whose economic and social polices rivalled that of the US. Here we have a case where countries have an internal value system linked to their economic systems, so they become economic competitors to protect their social systems. The US was terrified of communism, and the USSR was intent on spreading it. So they both embarked on policies of expansion. The USSR annexed and funded countries that embraced communism, crushing any opposition. The US did the same, backing fascist murderous dictators worldwide as long as they rejected communism. The devastation this wrought was immense in terms of human life. But it was in both countries' interests not to stop their activities, because then the enemy would have an upper hand. 

You see this mirrored today with the US and China, with China funding infrastructure projects in a number of Asian and African countries in exchange for political support, while the US can only count on its bases like South Korea and Japan for leverage, in addition to NATO. China knows North Korea is a powder keg but continues to maintain friednyl relations with them because they can use North Korea as leverage against the US if they need to. It pays to keep them close as an ally. Which is why the US has a military presence in Taiwan and the Pacific. Self-interest always wins. 

You also see this mirrored today with nuclear weapons. No world leader truly believes that these weapons are good, but they can't help keeping an arsenal as long as their enemies have them too. It's only the smaller countries with no ambitions of power that don't need nuclear weapons, but they are either aligned to a power block (like Bhutan), or are not threatened by one (like Oman).

Books like Isaac Asimov's Foundation series really open your eyes to these sorts of situations and decisions. You begin to see beyond the values that you were raised on, the values that countries should be run on, and see the world for what it really is, a blank slate ready for exploitation by power-hungry people ready to exploit anything.

Which is not to say that values don't matter. Of course they do. But they keep changing, and we need to be mindful of this, and ensure they change in a way that's best for all of humanity (if we are to take a humanistic approach towards existence). The Mesopotamian civilisation used slavery because it made sense to do so, values be damned. This doesn't make it right, but it made economic sense at the time, and later for thousands for years, until we decided that slavery was wrong. This didn't happen overnight. It took time. it's the same for universal suffrage, or homosexuality. Values change. But change takes time.

Attaining world peace

So how do you reduce international conflict and attain world peace? Again, you can use game theory to figure this out. Prevent countries from warring with each other by making it too costly (relatively speaking) to do so. People will always strive for power and self-interest. You can't take this urge away. You can only develop a political ecosystem in which acting upon the urge is too costly given more attractive alternatives. An ecosystem is which countries are incentivised to trade and cooperate peacefully with each other.

One way to do this is to build trust between all the different countries that currently exist. One way to do this is by removing any perceived threat between two countries and increasing trade opportunities. And you do this by economically developing every country equally. Remove economic gaps, invest in education and healthcare, make all countries economically powerful so they can serve as trading partners with each other. This serves as a status quo, a deterrent to attacking each other. Over time, this becomes trust. 

Of course, this should work better if the countries have similar value systems, as differing value systems pose a threat. For example, the world's number one economy - China - is communist, while the US-NATO power block isn't. Both blocks trade profitably with each other, but mistrust exists. A common value system would probably remove this. Remember that power blocks are only formed as reactions against perceived threats from other blocks. The other way to attain world peace is of course to ensure that there is only one power block in existence - yours.


This Crash Course World History series is extremely informative w.r.t observing patterns in group behaviour across human history. By watching a concise approximation of human cooperation and conflict across time, you begin to observe patterns in group behaviour. Watch if you have 20 hours to spare. 

World history Part 1 -

World history Part 2 -


Sunday, 25 January 2015

Movie reviews - Coraline, ParaNorman & The Boxtrolls

I have been catching up on the films from Laika studio recently. Even disregarding all other factors with which we judge a film, the body of work they have produced with respect to only stop-motion animation quality is astounding. 

Coraline (2009) is their best work yet. A visual masterpiece. And incredibly creepy. Worth spending money on for the visuals alone. The story was above par too. Most films have a typical plot line where a character is shown to desire something, then has obstacles put in the way of that desire, and spends the film overcoming these obstacles to achieve a resolution. This films takes a slightly different view, where like 'Alice in Wonderland', we see the main character change goals midway through the film, which is when the real source of conflict is revealed. Of course, they film makers did have good source material to work from (a Neil Gaiman story). This might also explain why the film was one of the creepiest I've ever seen. I was also surprised by how well crafted the film was in terms of pacing. The film wasn't long, and yet seems evenly paced throughout.

ParaNorman (2012), a dramedy, was a whole lot of fun to watch. The story of acceptance is a little predictable (but still reasonably engrossing), and the animation wasn't as great as 'Coraline' (maybe that comes from setting your film in a typical suburban setting), but it was still good. The supporting characters are colourful without being annoying, and they get the comedy right. The lead character's personality and development are both above par. For that matter, so is the script. The lead character's thoughts and conversations with others are perhaps the best thing about this film. The best part of the movie is of course the final confrontation with the little girl. A work of art on all levels, it's worth watching the entire film for that scene alone.

The Boxtrolls (2014) is a visual masterpiece. The set design itself is better than 'Coraline'. Again, watch it for the visuals alone. I liked the story, but felt it was aimed at younger audiences. The story felt old, like it has been done before, so it felt a little predictable and low key for me. Nothing about the plot really stood out. The Boxtrolls and ParaNorman are almost like inverted versions of each other, with the Boxtrolls being the better visual experience, and ParaNorman having a fuller, more emotional story to tell, with characters you really relate to. But this shouldn't take away how awesome the film is. Each individual frame is so well crafted it's tough not to admire the film.