The Price of Ideals

“Are those what I think they are?” I asked incredulously, while walking down to the station with a friend. My friend affirmed that yes, the government had built a rather large wind farm off the shore of my home town.

This was a bit of a shock. I had absolutely no warning that they were building anything out there (although now I think about it, that would explain all the ‘oil rigs’ we saw in the summer); nothing in the newspapers or from my friends. It’s definitely an experience I would recommend to everyone, to have your perception of the world change so dramatically in a few seconds.

For the next five minutes, I mulled out loud my thoughts about the wind farm. I’m very much in favour of alternative energy (where appropriate) and given that we in Britain are ‘blessed’ with so much wind, it makes an awful lot of sense to take full advantage of it. I’ve always maintained that, sure, they might not look that nice, but it’s a small price to pay for clean energy. As a result, my reaction to newspaper reports on people complaining wind farms has always been, ‘Stop whining’. Yet my first thought on seeing the wind farm literally in my back yard was, ‘What the hell is that, and why couldn’t they build it somewhere else?’

After I’d calmed down a bit, I realised that it was pretty cool to have a wind farm in my back yard. Instead of alternative energy generation being something of an abstraction in my life, here it is, a permanent fixture on the horizon. If they had a way to make the windmill invisible, I wouldn’t say no, but it’s not a big deal. Best of all, it gives me vital ammunition in any future argument I have…

I will try to get a photo of the wind farm soon.

The Road to Mars is Paved with Money

I haven’t been following the Beagle 2 Mars Mission anywhere near as much as I ‘ought’ to be, but I loved this quote from the lead scientist of the project, Colin Pillinger.

Interviewer: What happens if you find life on Mars?
Prof. Colin Pillinger: I’ll find it a lot easier to get funding for the next mission

Spoken like a true scientist.

A Cure

I was out in Liverpool doing some shopping and sherpa-duty for a friend when I saw a wonderfully stupid sign for a herbalist in a shopping mall. I lamented to my friend that I didn’t have a camera with me, and then did a double-take and realised that I did – I’ve just bought a new SE T610 phone which has got a small, low-quality yet working camera in it. So here is the picture:

The herb sign

Clearly these guys think that along with curing shingles, paralysis and migraines, they can also cure neurology. I didn’t know that the medical science of neurology was in fact an ailment or disease, or even that it could be cured, but I am glad that Herbal King has a way.

A Bright Picture

It’s not often that I see a piece of science writing that concisely explains a difficult concept in an accessible way, but this article at Wired on a pill that could prevent hearing loss had some well-written passages. The reporter, Noah Shachtman, used a nice turn of phrase to describe how a buildup of free radicals in the cocheal hair cells can cause damage and kill them:

When these hair cells are overstressed by loud noises, “free radicals” — unstable oxygen atoms that are short an electron — are produced, explains Southern Illinois University professor of audiology research Kathleen Campbell. The radicals start stealing electrons from nearby molecules, like the cell’s fatty walls. Enough of this thievery will kill the cell.

This can be stopped, however, if enough antioxidants — the body’s natural defense mechanisms — are supplied beforehand. The antioxidant molecules easily give up an electron. This supplies the free radical, and prevents its toxic larceny.

Hearing loss prevention is not a sexy subject and some might wonder whether there’s any point making an effort to explain it, but there’s no scientific concept too small or apparently unimportant to explain well. Shachtman did a good job in injecting a bit of humour into the article while also providing a vivid image of what’s going on in the ear. More, please!

Inappropriate Award

And the award for the most inappropriate music in a movie trailer goes to Peter Pan which used an instrumental version of ‘Clocks’ by Coldplay. What were they thinking? Other than the fact that Coldplay are popular these days, I can think of no reason why they used them as backing music. Don’t get me started on ‘Peter Pan’ the movie either…


I have long wanted to see a movie – any movie – in which the audience applauds at the end. I’ve always thought I’d have to go to America to do this since they are certainly more unrestrained than the English, but at the end of watching Return of the King in London on the premiere, there was a short yet touchingly honest spread of applause after the final scene. In England, it was as good as a standing ovation.


After you’ve lived in Cambridge and Oxford for three years, you begin to appreciate two things. One, they’re really, really small. Two, nothing ever changes in those cities, and doubly so for anything related to the university. There’s a ‘joke’ that goes:

Q: How many college fellows does it take to change a lightbulb?
A: “Change? Are you crazy?!”

As the North American contingent of Cambridge and Oxford are so fond of pointing out, both universities are far older than their country, and have experienced far less change. The mere suggestion of adding a new building, or (for example) allowing people to play music in their rooms outside of certain proscribed hours, generates such head-shaking bewilderment and a wilful miscomprehension in the minds of university staff that is simply unparalleled in this region of the Milky Way galaxy.

Of course, it wouldn’t do to actually admit this, which would be more honest than saying something like, “No, you can’t have a TV room in your halls of residence because you’d create a fire hazard,” when the primary use for said room is for cleaners to smoke in. One day I believe that university staff will start suddenly going insane as the mental convolutions involved in creating such fantastical justifications for withholding change pass a certain point beyond which the human consciousness cannot handle. I look forward to that day.

In the meantime, students starved of change in their environment become highly excited when anything changes. It would be easy to assume that the atmosphere of changelessness only exists within colleges and university buildings and not outside them, but considering that the colleges invariably own all the land in Cambridge and Oxford between them, and hence prevent any ‘new’ or ‘disruptive’ companies from setting up shop in the middle of town (e.g. video-rental, fast food, anything useful), it should be apparent that I have in fact lived in a time bubble for the last three years.

On the way into Cambridge last weekend, I spotted a new restaurant on Regent Street and got as far as saying, “Did you know there’s a new res-” when my sentence was completed for me. When I returned to Oxford and saw another former Cambridge student, I immediately recounted this tale of magic. The fact that the most exciting thing to happen to Cambridge in months was the opening of a new restaurant and the threatened closure of a fast-food shop may consequently give you an insight into the stunted, twisted psyche of Oxbridge graduates.

The sad thing is that all of this is self perpetuating. I have no doubt that if I spent a few more years in Cambridge, I would have become so accustomed to my surroundings that any possibility of change would have sent me into cardiac shock, or at the very least, generated an aneurysm. In the last months of my time there, my friends and I spent a not insignificant amount of time bitterly lamenting the fact that the Woolworths in the centre of town was being replaced by a Next, of all shops!

Yet while moving from city to city might prevent this calcifaction of the mind from taking place, there’s something to be said for staying in the same city for decades. After a while, you begin to ignore the city’s faults (in the case of Cambridge, the primary fault being that it isn’t actually a city) and accept them, perhaps even becoming fond of them. If you take the traveller’s path though, you’ll constantly be railing against the stupidity of your new city; exactly how Oxford council can spend two years repaving the same road three times is, I feel, not something normal humans can understand.

There must be a happy medium though. I’ll post again in a few decades to let you know if I’ve found it.

More inaccurate reporting

I was initially pleased to see that the Guardian Online had an article about Alternate Reality Games today, and then disappointed to see an inaccurate and overly simplistic piece of journalism. Soon after reading it, I wrote an email to the author, Andrew Losowsky, which I’ve included below:

I have a few comments on your article about ARGs in the Guardian today. While I think it’s great that you wrote about ARGs, there were a few things that were wrong in the article.

You mentioned that the AI game had roughly 10,000 players. At its peak, the Cloudmakers player group for the game had 7000 registered members; there were many, many more people playing the game who hadn’t registered. In a lecture given by the game’s designer, Elan Lee, to the Game Developer’s Conference in 2002, he claimed there were over 100,000 people playing. This seriously underrepresents the popularity of the AI game.

Furthermore, the ‘Matrix’ game could not be considered to be ‘the most successful ARG ever’ by any measure whatsoever – such as popularity, press coverage, quality or profit. In fact, if it wasn’t for the fact that it had a tenuous link to the Matrix, you could quite easily call it one of the worst ARGs ever, in terms of an opaque plot and lack of compelling story.

And of course that’s what the genre is about – ARGs aren’t about puzzles or ‘this is not a game’. They’re just a new way of telling stories – an immersive, interactive way, but it’s still just storytelling. It shouldn’t then be surprising that the most successful ARGs have been the ones with the best stories; if the AI game hadn’t been written by Sean Stewart (now a bestselling, award-winning fantasy author) then no amount of puzzles or strange clues would have made it popular.

Consequently, the fact that Warner Brothers is not bothered about fan fiction has absolutely no bearing on the future of ARGs. While people may make more fan fiction ARGs such as the ‘Matrix’ game, the real potential for ARGs lies in the telling of new stories that are not tied to an existing, copyrighted property – stories that can soar free of the restrictions of linear entertainment and take full advantage of their creators’ imaginations.

Adrian Hon

Ask Metafilter

Ask MetaFilter – truly one of the best ideas that’s hit the Internet this year. There are other websites that provide general advice, but none with the community and (some might say) highly intelligent and educated userbase of MetaFilter.

Dishonest science

BoingBoing linked to this interview about ‘brain technologies’ today which I think will inevitably give people a completely wrong impression about the field. The interviewee, David Pescovitz (a science writer, not a scientist) touches on all the popular stuff at the moment including the laughable ‘neuromarketing’:

Volunteers in one study completed a survey about their likes and dislikes in different product categories. Then, while under the fMRI scanner, they were shown items on the screen. The researchers, according to the company�s press release, �pinpointed the preference area of the brain. Using this data, the Thought Sciences team can now help their client to design better products and services and a more effective marketing campaign.� Like something from a Philip K. Dick novel, the technique is called �neuromarketing.�

If the Thought Sciences team really did manage to help their client design a better product and marketing campaign by looking at a few blobs on a screen, I will eat my shoes. fMRI and neuroscience is not at the stage where we can look at brain images and say, “Well, this person clearly prefers product A to product B because the ‘preference area’ is lit up more with A.”

Later on, he talks about the research done by Alan Snyder at Sydney on using transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) to improve cognitive function. This was very interesting stuff, but the fact that researchers at Adelaide were not able to reproduce the results was of course not mentioned. After all, why mention something like that when it would ruin such a good story?

There is a lot of irresponsible science journalism going on these days. Normally it is of the negative variety, that is, genetically modified crops will eat your children, but increasingly you see a lot of cheerleading of biological and neuroscientific research going on. People like David Pescovitz are misrepresenting the true state of our knowledge and giving the impression that we have TMS and brain imaging all figured out, and in a mere few years you’ll be able to zap your frontal lobes and gain 20 IQ points. Unless these journalists are totally incompetent, they can’t have failed to notice that these issues are far from resolved and certainly in the case of the TMS experiment, very much disputed. Unfortunately the alternative to incompetence in this case is not much better – sheer dishonesty, fueled by the need to file a sensational story at the end of the day.