Project Syzygy

For a weblog that’s supposed to be about ‘massively multiuser online entertainment’, I’ve been awfully quiet about the entire genre. Well, that ends now – at least partially. For a while now, I’ve been involved in a London-based venture called Project Syzygy which is developing what I feel is one of the most astonishingly innovative and promising immersive fiction games ever. Admittedly, that’s not saying much since there have been precious few, and it’s hard to be convincing when I can say so little, but believe me – I’ve spent a long time thinking about ideas for games and when I heard of this one, I was literally speechless.

There’re serious resources and experience behind this game, and I have no doubt that it will come to fruition. If you’re interested in being part of the launch team for the game, visit the website above. And if you’re interested in games in general, visit it anyway. Keep your eyes peeled as well – Project Syzygy will be cropping up in a few other places…


EasyMusic and Copyleft – interesting to see that Stelios is considering dabbling in the world of Copyleft music: “We are currently investigating business opportunities in the area of music downloads, especially following the ‘copyleft’ principle. Copyleft is where music has no copyright at all so music can be freely downloaded from sites and exchanged between people as much as they want.” Of course, it’s not entirely true that Copyleft music has ‘no copyright at all’ but I suppose for most people the distinction is neglegible.


I was on my way into Marks and Spencers foodcourt today when I was stopped dead in my tracks by the sight of self-service checkouts. I know these checkouts are not uncommon in the US but I’d never seen them anywhere in this country until now. For the uninformed, self-service checkouts allow customers at shops and supermarkets to check out their own goods and pack them into bags themselves. Security is ensured both by placing the bag racks on a balance that cross-checks the weight of the goods in them with those that youv’e scanned, and by the presence of a highly suspicious supervisor.

Theoretically, self-service checkouts are a good solution for the shop and the customer because they drastically reduce labour costs and decrease checkout time. I put the latter part of the equation to the test today.

The self-service checkouts are about a metre and a half long and consist of a LCD touchscreen, a barcode detector and a bag rack (among other things). When you stand in front of the checkout, you can either start passing your items through immediately or press ‘Start’ on the touchscreen, which I did and launched the machine into an excessively polite and cheerful introduction into how to use the checkout. It really is as simple as you’d imagine – you scan your items and put them into the bags. As you scan items, their information and cost appear on the screen. I did have a problem in one item not appearing when I scanned it but that may have been due to it being in the wrong orientation.

When you’ve finished, you press a button on the screen and choose a payment option – credit or debit cards, or cash. Cash can be inserted into the machine, and credit cards can be swiped. There’s a signature panel on the side of the machine which you have to use in the latter case, and at the end you get a receipt printed. Throughout all of this, the instructions continue via videos and audio.

The entire process took rather longer than it would’ve if I went to a normal ‘assisted checkout’ due to the novelty of the experience but I imagine I could cut the time down quite a bit on a second visit. I doubt that I could ever be faster than an experienced checkout person but I could give a good shot at beating many of the slower ones I’ve encountered. The argument could be made that this means self-service checkouts would in fact not save the majority of people’s time, but that’s neglecting the fact that you could fit more self-service checkouts in the same space as normal ones, thus reducing queue length.

I doubt that shops or supermarkets will ever eliminate normal ‘assisted’ checkouts simply because there are some people who will not be able to use (or intensely dislike using) self-service checkouts. This suits me fine – the slow folks can go with the normal checkouts, and the quicker, more froody people can go with the self-service ones. This will save a lot of time, I expect. Of course, it’s only a matter of time before they have to replace the whole lot with RFID scanner gateways.


At about 12:30pm today, Elizabeth II, by the Grace of God, of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and Her other Realms and Territories Queen, Head of the Commonwealth, Defender of the Faith, sailed past South Parks Road roughly two metres away from me in her Queenmobile and disappeared into the new �60 million Oxford University Chemistry Lab to ceremonially open it.

When I heard about this yesterday, I originally thought that it’d be a bit of a waste of time to go along and watch, given that I’m an avowed republican (not that I think the monarchy is going away any time soon). This morning, though, a couple of things occurred to me. Firstly, I’ve never seen the Queen in person before and it seemed like a good idea to actually have a look at our Head of State in person. Secondly, it was as good a reason as any other to take a few minutes off work.

I suspect that most people in the two hundred-strong crowd lining the road felt the same way as me when they saw the entourage drive past; in other words, they were students who were impressed, despite their cynical nature. Nobody was waving any flags and a brave attempt by a few to get the crowd clapping failed dismally, but people were still excited to have seen the Queen close up.

The most reaction anyone got from the crowd actually came five minutes before the Queen arrived, from a bus driving instructor who beamed at us, waving regally from behind the driver – even the hardened university grad students had to laugh.


An excerpt from a BBC News story about a new Russian missile:

“Colonel Baluyevsky gave few details of the new missile which was tested on Wednesday, but said it was one that moved five times the speed of light.”

Wow, that’s some seriously good engineering they’ve got over there in Russia. If I lived in the US, I’d be afraid.


The feeling of total, horrified incredulity is not one that I get to enjoy very often, but this afternoon I had a stiff dose of it. For the past week or so I’ve been working on some tissue samples that have probably seen close to a dozen hours of solid work going into them. Today, I was engaging in the most difficult and skilled job that biologists are trained in – the time honoured art of moving the tissue samples from one container of liquid to another every five minutes for an hour while listening to the radio.

It is the sort of job that, you would think, would be very difficult to screw up. Yet when I placed the first carefully labelled and ordered rack of samples into a jar of alcohol, and stared on in horror as their ink labels mockingly drifted away from the glass slides to form diffuse, unreadable clouds, I reflected upon the utility of an education in chemistry; unsurprisingly, 70% ethanol is strong enough to clean pretty much anything from a glass slide.

In fact, it turns out that there is basically no way of labelling glass slides to survive dipping in strong alcohol. The only solution is to label the racks themselves. Thankfully, this story has a happy ending because I remembered the order of the slides and their racks and can still reconstruct their labels.


Ack! I spent ten long hours at the lab today in an experiment that, while conducted essentially flawlessly, yielded no scientific results whatsoever. All part of the process, I suppose. I eventually got home a little before 8pm and less than an hour later I allowed myself to be dragged out to a jazz event at The Wheatsheaf pub. Luckily enough, the jazz was pretty decent and I managed to have a very relaxing time. I almost managed to ignore the smoke, as well.

The Sunny State

After a week of dismal weather and tiring winds that sap all of the enjoyment out of cycling, not to mention dozens of niggling problems at the lab and a whole host of other things, things have finally started to improve here in Oxford. Yesterday I found out that I’ll be going to a vision science conference in Florida at the end of April, fully paid by the Wellcome Trust, bless their generous souls, and today I received a bunch of books and CDs from Amazon, including The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay and Perdido Street Station. This weekend is looking gratifyingly relaxing and I have managed to sort out a lot of background irritations as well.


The Guardian’s Life section (science) has an article about the impenetrable writing favoured by scientists when writing in journals. This is hardly a new development but it’s no less interesting or disappointing for it; what is disappointing is that the author, Chris McCabe, has reduced this interesting subject to a directionless and misguided article, which is rather amusing since he’s supposed to be a key member of the resistance against bad writing. The article basically consists of the trivial argument that no-one understands scientific papers supported by far too many anecdotes and examples of bad writing. It’s only until the last couple of paragraphs that he actually gets to the point, such that it is.

While I’ll be the first to admit that there’s far too much bad writing in journals, a lot of what people might consider to be impenetrable is always going to be impenetrable. McCabe uses the following excerpt as a prime example of bad writing:

“These findings support the hypothesis that spatial learning may depend on neuronal input from the entorhinal cortex to dentate granule cells via perforant path and LTP-induction at perforant path-dentate granule cell synapses in pathway-specific semi-interactive modes of operation.”

Now, this could have been written much more clearly, but the real reason why it’s impenetrable is because over 99% of the population have no idea what these words mean: spatial learning, neuronal input, entorhinal cortex, dentate granule cells, perforant path, LTP-induction, perforant path-dentate granule cell synapses, pathway-specific semi-interactive modes of operation. Is it any surprise, then, that it reads badly?

Scientific papers aren’t aimed for the general audience. They’re aimed for those highly specialised scientists, numbering in the tens of thousands, who actually care about and understand the particular field. Before I’m accused of being elitist, there are articles – called reviews – in journals that do attempt to explain specialised subjects like the one above to the greater scientific community. Most reviews probably wouldn’t be suitable for the general public because, like papers, they assume a certain amount of background knowledge. If they didn’t, they’d be far too long. As it is, journals impose very strict word limits on papers and unfortunately scientists have to be terse in order to meet them.

Yet even when scientists aren’t actively trying to be terse, they often appear like it. Take this sentence from the methods section of my dissertation:

“The slices were subsequently transferred to a recording chamber, also perfused with oxygenated aCSF at room temperature.”

Makes no sense at all, does it? But what’s the point of trying to pad it out when all of my readers know exactly what I’m talking about and just want me to get to the good bits, namely, the section where my methods differ from everyone else’s? Just in the same way, when I try to read this analysis of the Superbowl, I have no idea what they’re talking when they say ‘third down’ and ‘two point conversion’, but it doesn’t bother me because the article’s not written for those completely unfamiliar to American Football, it’s written for fans.

Even if writing in journals was improved (and it needs improving), it would still remain totally opaque to the general public. We only start nearing the general public at the level of newspaper article, TV programmes on science and (perhaps) New Scientist.

The problem McCabe is trying to address isn’t really about bad science writing for scientists, it’s about bad science writing for the public. To pretend that scientists get their negative image from their writing in journals is like claiming that Christina Aguilera is popular because of her wonderful personality – in other words, it’s completely missing the point. It might be a tired cliche to say that we need to ‘build a bridge’ between the scientific community and the public, but it’s still true.

Our entire culture’s schizophrenic attitude to science, one of simultaneous awe and hatred, of hope and despair and of magic and boredom, desperately needs mending. It’s not just a job for the scientists, it’s a job for politicians, teachers, parents, children, journalists – everyone.

So, long live terse journal papers – but more importantly, long live Science!

Remembrance of Books Past

Remembrance of Books Past – an article by Ray Bradbury in which he talks about the idea of rewriting books from memory; a never-realised sequel to Fahrenheit 451. “Why not a sequel to ‘Fahrenheit 451’ in which all the great books are remembered by the Wilderness People and are finally reprinted from memory. What then? Wouldn’t it be that all would be misremembered, none would come forth in their original garb? Wouldn’t they be longer, shorter, taller, fatter, disfigured, or more beautiful?” (via MetaFilter).