Free, as in Beer

As a big fan of museums, I’m always eager to hear news of how well they’ve been doing since the government scrapped admissions charges. Today it’s been announced that since the charges were scrapped in 2001, visitor numbers have increased by 75%, or 6 million. Considering that it used to be fairly pricey to go to a museum, I’m not at all surprised.

The interesting part of the article is not the increase in visitor numbers, which anyone could have predicted, or the fact that the government has decided to make the change permanent. It’s the fact that the Conservatives would like to give museums the ability to charge what they want, and furthermore, they’d like to charge foreign tourists to enter. Since the Conservatives have zero chance of winning the next election, I’m not particularly fazed by this stunning show of stupidity, but it does warrant some thought.

Presumably the Conservatives simply want to roll back the changes so that along with allowing museums to charge for admission, they’d also remove their VAT exemption, meaning that we’d be in exactly the same position as three years ago – lower visitor numbers, and museums have pretty much the same money they always did. Clearly, a great result, which also happens to ignore the fact that every museum I’ve visited has some kind of premium annex (from IMAX to big dinosaur exhibitions) that makes them a fair bit of cash. There’s no doubt that museums require more funding, but reintroducing admissions charges is not the way to go.

It’s charging foreign tourists that’s the most laughable suggestion. Exactly how would this work in practice? Are museums supposed to check the nationality of every single visitor, so people would have to bring ID, not just for themselves but also for their children? Apart from the additional queues and costs this would cause, any tourist with half a brain would be able to get around it somehow (I can already think of a few ways). Besides, I’m always told by foreign friends visiting the UK how impressed they are that museums in this country are free; it leaves them with a lasting good opinion and makes them more likely to recommend the UK to their friends and relatives back home.

So, in conclusion – keep free admission, give our museums more money, and the Conservatives are stupid.

Rosetta

I was idly flicking through a book someone gave me about hieroglyphics when I decided to look up the Rosetta Stone in the index. I was initially consternated and then outraged when I couldn’t find it – what sorry excuse of a hieroglyphics book was this if it doesn’t have anything about the Rosetta Stone in it? Grumbling, I shuffled back through the pages and found a section that seemed to be related to the stone, which slightly mollified me although I was still a bit bemused about the whole thing. Five minutes later, when I close the book, I glance at its title, which reads, “The Rosetta Stone – The story of decoding the hieroglyphics’. Ah.

The Night Before Launch

(DISCLAIMER: This is a personal message – it is not from Perplex City. It most definitely is not a CLOO and launch is not actually tomorrow. It’s something I wrote for the fine folks at Unforums and so may make little to no sense if you aren’t familiar with ARGs or that crowd. Without further ado…)

‘Twas the night before Launch, though all through the land,
The posters at Unforum had once thought the Project’d been canned;

Their posts were expectant, their comments excited,
And every one of them was sure they’d be delighted;

Wherever they looked, near and far and in all abodes,
Naught reached their eyes but ciphers and codes;

And Shish with his scripts, and Tanner with his plans,
Were confident they could defeat all other ARG clans;

When out on the web there arose such a noise,
That they sprang from their chairs and put down their toys;

Away to the forums they flew like a flash,
To discover that their beloved site’d suffered a crash!

‘It must be a mistake, it must be a lie,’
Said the posters to themselves with a tear in their eye;

‘For our home to disappear on such a day…
Why, we must hurry to the chat rooms without delay!’

‘Enough of this crying, let us steel ourselves visibly,
And not rest until we read ‘Connected to #syzygy’;

The ops were ready, the troops so bright and energetic,
You’d know in a moment they’d see past any trick;

‘Now, ROT! now, Google! now, reverse lookup and WHOIS!
Now Babelfish, now Enigma, now every maths whiz!’

‘Now into the web! Now through the terrible pall!
Let us find the villain, and ensure their quick fall!’

As AIs at full height, at the summit of their power,
There is no foe over whom ARGers cannot tower,

So the posters, with awful vengeance in their eyes,
For the sake of their game, assumed a fearsome guise;

Across all sites their browsers they flew,
With ‘View Source’ at the ready, and Old Nik-Doof too,

For hours they scoured the nets and combed the land,
Until none of them, not even Fi, had the strength to stand;

Their energies exhausted, their spec starting to dupe,
Who would blame them if their eyes couldn’t but droop?

And then, in the distance, a sound as of thunder,
Something was approaching that would tear them asunder;

What now, they wondered, would be their foe’s next hit?,
And yet the unthinkable happened – a disastrous netsplit!

‘Enough is enough, we will end this tonight!’ they said,
Marching off in serried ranks with Wishi at their head,

They marched through the deserts and into certain doom,
They marched for miles to reach the server room;

For how else could their adversary cause this mess,
Without the essential ingredient – physical server access?

In a righteous rage they battered down the doors,
And proclaimed, ‘You have wronged us all, and the sacred ARG laws!’

But there was not a single person to be seen,
‘Cept for the flickering of a tell-tale blue screen;

To their dismay, their enemy was but a mere bee,
It’d been caught in the server motherboard, you see!

A wonderful story, you say, but why must we still wait?
Can’t you tell us when will be the blessed launch date?

In reply, I’ll give you a wink and a smile, and in my usual way,
‘I’m sorry,’ I answer, ‘but I really can’t say!’

Still I would like to remark, before I disappear again out of sight,
“Happy Christmas to all, and to all Syzygists a good-night!”

Excitement

There’s an advert on TV for I, Robot where a typically breathless voiceover proclaims that in the movie, ‘Will Smith defines excitement’. For some reason I can’t get out of my head the image of Will Smith beginning the movie by reading out the definition for ‘excitement’ from a dictionary.

A (Brief) Tale of Two Games

In the past couple of weeks I bought Half-Life 2 and Sid Meier’s Pirates!. This is pretty exceptional for me since I can’t actually recall the last time I bought a computer game. After buying a new graphics card for HL2 (the game simply laughed at my pathetic attempt to get it to run on an integrated Intel card), I’ve played it for several hours, marvelling at the wonderful graphics and physics engine. There’s no doubt that it’s the best looking game I’ve ever played and it’s pretty fun, as well. Unfortunately (or fortunately for some) it’s the kind of nail-biting, heart-stopping fun that I last remember experiencing when playing F-Zero X on my own. It’s a tense, twitchy fun.

On the other hand, while Pirates! might not look as good as HL2, its cartoony style suits it perfectly and I happily played it for a few hours last night without any problems. It has the perfect amount of ‘just one more minute’ addiction that Sid Meier is the acknowledged master of, and its learning curve is pleasantly shallow. If anything, it’s a little too easy, although I haven’t tried half the stuff in the game yet; I’ve been having far too much fun with the ship battles and the ballroom dancing…

Happenings

Lots of stuff has been going on with my life lately which I should have mentioned here but just haven’t had time. I was interviewed by the Times a couple of weeks ago in an article on alternate reality games and a pop neuroscience book which I contributed to called Mind Hacks has been released (I wrote section 72, ‘Detect Cheaters’). It’s all very exciting.

A Passage to Bangalore

(First part online – other parts being written)

A Passage to India has always been one of my most hated books. Perhaps it’s because we were forced to read it in school. Perhaps it was the way in which our class had to take turns read out aloud the entire damn thing. Or perhaps it’s just because it was incredibly boring. The only moment of relief we had was at the beginning of the book when one character smokes a ‘hookah’, which we all thought was the funniest thing we’d ever heard.

In between reading that book when I was around 13 or 14 and now, I’ve learned rather more about India through judicious study of newspapers, magazines, books and documentary movies such as Lagaan. Furthermore, I’ve acquired several Indian friends at Oxford and Cambridge, one of whom I visited in late November 2004 while she was in Bangalore. This is a diary of that visit.

Tuesday 23rd November

For reasons of economy, my flight to India involves London Heathrow, Zurich, Mumbai (Bombay) and Bangalore. The Heathrow-Zurich-Mumbai section is by Swiss Air, and the internal flight is handled by Jet Airways. This all ends up as being around 20 hours including the interminable transfers, and for some inexplicable reason, I decided to book a flight that leaves Heathrow at 6:10am today. That meant I have to get to Heathrow for about 3am, and that meant I didn’t get any sleep.

I ended up getting to Heathrow at 3:30am and joined the queue at the Swiss Air check-in desk. Approximately 100 minutes later, and 60 minutes before the plane is supposed to leave, the check-in desk finally opens. To say that this irritated me is to say that I have a passing interest in Mars. Firstly, it turned out that they don’t open their check-in desks until 5am. Fine, I can see why they might want to do this, and how it might even make sense, providing that they told passengers beforehand, and that they actually open properly at 5am and start processing passengers. Naturally, neither such thing is true. In fact, I witnessed what I wrote at the time was a ‘magnificently incompetent’ bunch of check-in staff performing the most wondrous farce of losing keys, running back and forth, dropping stuff and generally slowing things down to the extent that the plane left the best part of an hour late. It’s almost worth laughing at apart from the fact that this sort of thing costs airlines enormous amounts of money.

The flight to Zurich was gratifyingly free of stress and I slept the entire way. Transferring to my India-bound flight at Zurich was scarily efficient. I don’t think I waited in a queue for longer than a minute there as we were quietly herded through the impossibly clean and functional vastness of the airport by the impossibly clean and functional Swiss.

It took 8 hours to fly from Zurich to Mumbai, and I filled the time by marvelling at how I had four seats to myself and watching I, Robot a second time (a pretty decent movie) and the Indian movie Main Hoon Na. I think Main Hoon Na represents the final product of the evolution of movies over the decades – the omega point, if you will – and is best described as a maddening mix of Ten Things I Hate About You, Kindergarten Cop, Die Hard, a romantic drama, a musical, and of course, a Bollywood movie. You may wonder how it is possible to fit such things into a 179 minute movie. Watch it, and learn. I was later informed by a friend of Shakti’s that as far as these things go, it out-Bollywooded Bollywood.

Before landing in Mumbai, I had to fill in an Indian immigration form. Invariably, when I visit another country, I stay with friends. Said friends will meet me at the airport and so about half of the time, I have no idea where I’m supposed to be staying in said country. This poses a problem filling in immigration forms. I recall this first happened was when I travelled to the US on my own for the first time. I was basically scared shitless when I realised I couldn’t fill in the form properly but then hit upon the idea of writing down a fictional address (it was ‘Best Western Hotel, Denver, Colorado’) which of course worked fine since the immigration staff never check that sort of thing out. I had to do the same thing for Mumbai except I was pretty sure that Bangalore didn’t have a Best Western Hotel. In fact, my knowledge of the city’s hotels was so limited that I had to claim I was staying at the ‘Bangalore Hilton’.

I’ve since discovered that there is no Hilton in Bangalore, and even if there was, I’m not sure whether they’d have believed I was staying there. Happily, I didn’t experience any problems with this.

Anyway, soon enough, it was time for me to leave the safe cocoon of the plane to land in Mumbai. I did a bit of research on the airport before my trip and discovered that a good number of travellers describe it as the worst airport in the world, and in one case, a ‘chaotic hellhole’. Now, the reality could hardly match up to a claim like that; sure, it wasn’t very clean and had useless signage, but in its defense, they had very quick baggage handlers and the immigration queue was much faster than what I’ve seen in the US. Perhaps I just caught it at a good time though.

The airport lounge was entirely devoid of interest and had rather more mosquitoes than I would have liked (i.e. it had more than zero). One of the first things I noticed was the smell – not unpleasant but very tangible. Maybe something to do with the nearby ocean. Maybe not.

Actually, when I think about it, Mumbai airport really is quite horrible when compared to places like Singapore or Hong Kong. I imagine the new airport in Shanghai will blow it away as well. To be honest, if India really wants people to take it seriously, it needs to go down the Hong Kong/Singapore/China route and make a kickass airport that travellers like. It may seem like a terrible waste of money but airports really shape lasting impressions of a country and, I don’t know, could help additional outside investment.

The internal flight down to Bangalore was quick enough and I landed early shortly after 5am on Wednesday 24th November (India is 5.5 hours ahead of GMT).