There’s no doubt that there are many who love Marmite, but personally speaking, I can’t stand the thing. Clearly MetaFilterites don’t agree with me though: “The marmite is not too strong for us. It is we who are too weak for the marmite,” and “Bow before the Gods of Yeast Extract! Bow damn you!”


Seen on Usenet, about spacecraft yachts for the rich: “Larry Ellison would probably go for it — but even he isn’t rich enough. Here’s an idea, though: An orbital timeshare. Ellison can use it six months of the year; Bill Gates gets it the rest of the time.”


I’m getting quite annoyed with MetaFilter, again. It’s not that the posts aren’t good – they are, I’ve seen some moderately good ones recently. It’s that I cannot sum up the enthusiasm to take part in discussions any longer. A thread about the link between autism and vaccines caught my eye today, and I was considering making a reply to some of the awful thinking that was going on in there, went the thought went through my mind, “What’s the point? It’s not as if anyone will actually bother reading or responding to your post properly.”

As I’ve said before, there comes a time when an online community grows too big for unmoderation. MetaFilter passed that stage a long, long time ago, and it’s truly a wonder how it hasn’t collapsed into a heap of trolling yet. Either the user numbers have to go down, or a new moderation system must be put in place. I can’t be the first person who’s been put off from posting in threads due to their precipitous decline in quality.

Community Effect

Learned about an interesting thing in a developmental biology seminar today called the ‘Community Effect’. If you transplant a very small group of cells into a foreign, non-self environment, the cells will lose their identity and assume one identical to that of the surrounding cells. However, if the group of cells that you transplant is large, then they’ll retain their identity.

This is a relatively new finding that has no definitive answers yet – some people suggest that diffusable signalling molecules might be implicated for this, or maybe cell-to-cell surface molecule interactions. Maybe it’s something else. The point is, it has interesting implications for the spread of cancer in mammals, and also metastases, where a blob of cancerous cells detaches from its original site to float around the bloodstream and establish itself somewhere else.

In these days of woefully misused biological metaphors for the Internet, the community effect may create some interesting insights on how communities composed of individuals, not cells, might operate in different online environments.

Mars beckons

It’s now just over a week until I go to Mars – or more accurately, to the Mars Society’s Mars Desert Research Station. Things are looking up – the Station took delivery of three new Kawasaki ATVs recently, and when I get there, the hab will have been in use for a month, meaning that a lot of the small maintanence problems should have been sorted out. Qiagen have kindly donated fifty DNA isolation minikits for the simulation, and the commander of the simulation will be taking along the equipment that will allow us to do some gel electrophoresis – serious biological research, in other words.

I haven’t had nearly as much time as I would have liked to plan a research project for the simulation, so what I’ll be doing is more likely to build upon current projects. I’m hoping to correlate the abundance of life found with other factors – light intensity, temperature, moisture, altitude – and also extend upon a psychological study we’re doing about stress, by monitoring the weather, sleep patterns and so on. It promises to be a great trip, and I’ll admit that riding around on an ATV in a spacesuit should be no small amount of fun.


One of the great things about being in Cambridge is that you have the opportunity to meet a great deal of international students – an opportunity that sadly many students do not take. Anyway, while talking to friends from India and Singapore, I discovered that the age-old tradition of ‘ragging’ is still in use across the world.

If you’ve read Tom Brown’s Schooldays, or have any experience with boarding schools, you’ll know what ragging is. Essentially, it’s the practice in which older students will make new students carry out time-consuming tasks that may or may not involve physical labour (and even injury). Its use varies greatly between establishments, and you might see it in schools or colleges. Often it is institutionalised, or at least not prohibited.

I was fairly surprised to hear that ragging is still alive and healthy, and expressed my disapproval. However, my friend from India made an interesting point. Ragging at his college was also aimed at groups of students, not individuals, so an older student might order half a dozen new students to carry around some heavy trunks for the day. At the end of the day, the older student would take them all out for dinner.

The argument goes that far from being a complete waste of time, the ragging helps new students bond together. I countered by saying that ragging was nothing more than a mixture of the usual scapegoating tactics to provide a common enemy and your stereotypical corporate bonding day – which is what it is. Of course, all this served to prove is that it’s not a new concept, not that it’s a waste of time.

If you look at any Cambridge college, my friend said, you’ll see that none of the people within a year in any college actually know each other, even if they’ve been together for three years. But look at my college, and everyone knows each other, and it’s because of the ragging.

This actually makes sense to me. Shared and emotionally salient experiences help you quickly form bonds with other people, and while ragging undoubtedly irritates new students no end, it does work (at least, anecdotally). Universities in the UK do attempt to help new students make friends through Fresher’s Week, but in my experience it really is a dismal effort. Organising a few pub crawls and parties hardly begins to make a group gel together, and besides, not everyone is interested in alcohol, especially at a university like Cambridge. As an aside, my theory is that the organisers of Fresher’s Week activities are caught in a deadly cycle wherein they are only catering for people identical to themselves, and they feel that this is justified since it’s tradition.

Of course, there are numerous potential pitfalls associated with ragging; you have to ensure that the students don’t begin to actively hate the perpetrators, and you have to ensure that they all actually dislike the tasks they are given. The latter is easy – heavy lifting is despised the world across, but you have to handle the former carefully. At the college in India, they held a party a month after the start of the year in which everyone threw eggs at each other, and then subsequently there was no more ragging (and of course, there the obligatory dinner after a day�s hard ragging). The key thing here is that the ragging was conducted in good faith and humour � if that isn�t the case, then things could turn ugly.

Now, it wouldn�t be if this didn�t have some sort of relevance to massively multiuser online entertainment. Clearly shared and emotional salient experiences are the best – and some might say, only – way in which to build strong communities. However, this is something that recent immersive fiction games have completely overlooked – with their emphasis on single player games, they eliminate the shared experience of struggling through puzzles and speculating about the plot. While I was playing the AI game, much of the community spirit that grew up came about via the process of cursing the game designers for creating such devilishly difficult puzzles – a high-tech, indirect form of ragging, but ragging nonetheless.

(The analogy is not perfect – some people like solving the puzzles. But the process remains, like ragging, a difficult one that sees you interact with other players and share tips and stories. You can identify with fellow players because they are going through the same experience as yourself)

But why should game designers bother making online communities? Why, because they make money! Not only do online communities provide valuable feedback and generate publicity, but they also amplify revenue sources – a player is much more likely to stay with your game if he is part of a strong community he identifies with than if he is on his own, all other things being equal.

Immersive fiction game designers are, at the moment, completely ignoring the potential of the Internet. By creating effectively single player, episodic games, they might as well sell CDs with the game content – it’d probably be cheaper and faster. The real potential for immersive fiction games lies in exploiting the interactions between large numbers of users, and ragging, as a method of developing ties between users, deserves more attention than it has thus far received.


Take a look at the LambdaMOO constitution (about halfway down the page). It confirms my belief that the most efficient and often best form of governance for an online community is essentially a benevolent dictatorship. LambdaMOO is basically an virtual online world.

In their constitution, the LambdaMOO administrators (‘Wizards’) explicitly state that they will sometimes make wide ranging decisions without the necessary consent or consultation of the user base. That said, they will endeavour to listen and respond to user input at all times.

This is exactly what I’ve done for my online communities (the New Mars forums being foremost) – I’ve said outright that the community is not run by a democracy, it is run by a dictator – me. I haven’t heard any complaints about this yet, even though the forums have had their bad times as well as good.

Taken to its extreme, digital democracy allows people to participate in any and every decision. In lieu of a decent and preferably formal constitution and decision-making structure, the whole thing descends into a shambles and nothing ever gets done. Since I don’t have the time to make up a good constitution and there aren’t any good ones that I can steal, a benevolent dictatorship will have to do for now. So far, it’s working out well.


A few days ago, the world (for me) passed another technological milestone – I now had full and unmetered Internet access for 99% of the time*. I’d just bought the Orange SPV Smartphone.

This phone is quite a nice piece of kit; it has a decent sized colour screen with a reasonably fast processor. Importantly, it synchronised quite beautifully with Microsoft Office (which it should do, since it runs Microsoft Smartphone 2002), and it has GPRS access to the web and my email.

Let me repeat that – it has full web and email access. This has been nothing short of a dream of mine for years; I can’t count the times that I’ve thought, “I wish I had Google right now,” or “I wish I didn’t have to wait until I get home to check my email.” Plus, it has instant messaging support via MSN messenger.

On the whole, it’s a good phone, and lightyears ahead of my previous comparable devices (Sony J70 and Visor Deluxe). Being among the first generation of the new wave of smartphones (the Nokia 7650 being another example), it has its niggles. These include:

1) A short battery life
2) Small and difficult to use buttons
3) Lag time on menu transitions

which are all irritating but nowhere near enough to offset the loveliness that is mobile Internet access. I’ve heard a lot of whining about ‘Oh, it’s a Microsoft phone so you’ll have to reboot it every day.’ I haven’t had to reboot the phone yet, and in any case, all phones need the occasional rebooting. I have no especial love for Microsoft, but there’s no use in making false claims.

The phone was relatively cheap, and it also came with a camera that takes pictures at 640×480. I don’t intend to use the camera that much, but it’s nice to have the option. I wouldn’t recommend this phone to most people, since most people don’t care about mobile Internet and email access, but for avowed techies like myself, I believe there isn’t a more cost-efficient smartphone available now or in the near future (the SE P800 included).

*I hesitate to say 100% of the time because there will inevitably be signal dropouts.