Notes from a Small Symposium, and others

The past Thursday saw me make a flying visit to Cambridge for a quarter-day symposium on wireless gaming. Returning to Cambridge is always a strange experience for me; I spent three years of my life holed up in a few square miles of town, so it all feels very familiar, despite the fact that half of it seems to be in the process of being torn down, rebuilt or refurbished. The reason why it’s strange is because I’ve spent the last two years in Oxford, which is perhaps the other place in the world most similar to Cambridge. The problem is, it’s similar in a sort of ‘travelled to a parallel dimension that is almost exactly like, but not identical, to where I came from’ – so you end up with a lot of jarring differences. With all of my constant moving between Oxford and London, being back in Cambridge is simply unbalancing, as if I’m still a student there.

On the subject of Oxford and Cambridge, I’ve remarked to friends that because I’ve studied at two such unusual and similar universities, I now have this expectation that all universities should be hundreds of years old, occupy the centre of their cities and be impossibly archaic in any number of ways. Sure, I’ve visited plenty of other universities across the country and around the world, but let’s face it, real universities should be like Oxbridge…

Arriving at Cambridge station tends to be the point where the deja vu starts – unless you’re coming from some peculiar, non-northern, non-London direction, you’ll always pass the decidedly utilitarian Cambridge University Press building, then a bunch of little houses and playing fields, to finally, agonizingly roll into the platform. At the station, there’s always the usual assortment of untidy students and confused tourists wondering where everything is, and then you have to prepare yourself for the walk into town.

On this occasion we took the bus instead. This was sheer luxury for me, since I don’t ever recall taking a bus within the town while I was actually a student there.

(I just passed a beautiful scene of sheep dozing on a sheer hillside on the coach out of Oxford. Were they sleeping or munching on grass? Who knows.)

We still managed to roll into the symposium about 90 minutes late, which was fine since we were only really going because we wanted to show off Perplex City after all of the talks. Still, we were able to hear most of a talk about gaming on mobile phones. I have mixed feelings about mobile phone gaming; I can’t deny that a lot of people play Snake or whatever on their phones, but as a platform I think they’re absolutely atrocious right now – the buttons are all wrong, the screen is too small, the operators have everything locked in – it hardly seems worth the effort. Of course, since there are however-many-billion mobiles around the world, everyone is salivating about the prospect of getting people to pay £1 a pop to download a single level of some Tomb Raider Java platformer pap. I suspect that by the time mobile phone gaming gets interesting, they’ll look more like the PSP or DS than actual phones, which is the point, really.

After the talk we (that is, me and another person from Mind Candy) popped downstairs to set up our laptops and array a selection of Perplex City cards in a presentable fashion. There were only two other stands at the reception, which sounds bad but there were only 50 or 60 attendees in total anyway. Perplex City got a very good amount of attention, partly because it was so novel – not so novel that no-one there had heard of it, though, which I was very pleased about. There was much conversation and squinting at cards with lines on them by all, and a lot of good-natured chat on the whole, ‘You mean there really is a £100,000 reward?’ and ‘Exactly what has this got to do with wirelss gaming’ lines (the answers respectively being yes, and not a lot). Cards were squirreled away into pockets, press packs taken and then we packed everything away and proceeded to a very unremarkable dinner, which was only livened up by hearing David Braben say, ‘Did someone mention Majestic?’

On the train back home, I read a bit more of Raw Spirit by Iain Banks, which has predictably generated an urge in me to learn how to drive, visit Scotland and buy lots of whisky.

On Saturday I was back in Oxford, wandering around near the covered market in the blazing sun looking for good sandwiches, when I happened on the QI bookstore. QI stands for Quite Interesting, and readers in the UK will know that’s the name of a trivia quiz show hosted by Stephen Fry. The QI bookstore is only a small part of the QI building, which holds a cafe, bar and private club. A while ago there was some noise about the club being an alternative to the tiresome too-cool-for-school London clubs such as Soho House, and instead being a home for thoughtful intellectual discussion with the likes of Rowan Atkinson, Stephen Fry (of course) and Philip Pullman. I have no idea whether Pullman is actually a member of the club, but it seems like a nice idea.

While the building doesn’t seem like it could hold all that much of a club, there’s more than enough room for a decent cafe and bar. I’ve never been in the cafe myself since it’s always full of intimidatingly hip students, all loudly expounding on worthy yet amusing topics in an attempt to get invited to join the club (I imagine). I have been in the bookstore though, which is more of a bookroom than anything else. The room is maybe 12 feet squared, with bookshelves on all walls categorised in an odd fashion, like ‘Stephen’s favourites’ or ‘War’ or ‘Strange Animals’. In the centre is an intimidatingly hip young sales clerk who never has to do any work.

Anyway, I was told that they had a decent selection of puzzle books, which is a total lie, but it does seem like the sort of place that would have good puzzle books. That being case, it would naturally also be the sort of place that would sell things like Perplex City cards, so I’m now thinking about getting someone to give them a ring about it. No promises though – there is every chance it won’t happen. Still, it’d be very satisfying to have the cards being sold there.

The First Rule is…

If you are at all interested in Doctor Who and would rather not know any plot details of the last episode, do not read any stories about Doctor Who on the internet from now on. You might think that you can rely on places like the BBC and the Guardian not to spoil the ending, since they haven’t done so in the past, but that isn’t the case now. The BBC conducted an unembargoed press screening of the final episode recently, and all of the papers and news outlets are happily spoiling everything.

I fell afoul of this today, when I read a seemingly innocuous article in the Guardian Media Online about the show being renewed for a third season. “Why,” I asked myself blithely, “would anyone put spoilers in such an article?” Anyway, about halfway through the article was a huge plot spoiler. I could hardly believe my eyes, and immediately closed the window in fear of further infection. Within minutes, I dispatched an angry email to the editor of the Guardian Media section, Janine Gibson, complaining about it.

To her credit she replied extremely rapidly and apologised for it. Shortly afterwards, the author of the article himself, Matt Wells, also replied and pointed out that there was a spoiler warning in the fourth para of the article. True enough, but I tend to speed read stuff on the internet (like many others, I suspect), and just zipped past it. The offending paragraph with spoilers was already on my screen without any scrolling at that point, so it was too late.

Luckily it wasn’t all spoiled for me, but damage has been done. I’ll just have to be more careful from now on…

Here is the correspondence of this story:

Date: 10:55:37 BST
From: Adrian Hon
To: Janine Gibson

Dear Ms. Gibson,

I’m a regular reader of Media Guardian and often find it gives the best reporting on UK Media issues. However, I was severely disappointed when I read ‘Doctor Who fights on… and on’ by Matt Wells today. Is it really necessary for him to spoil parts (if not all) of the ending of this season in a discussion about the third season renewal?

Surely it hasn’t escaped the Guardian’s notice that a good percentage of the population of this country are looking forward to the final episode and really would rather not know the ending? Even people who work in media don’t always want to know all the details.


Adrian Hon

Date: 11:04:17 BST
From: Janine Gibson
To: Adrian Hon

Thank you for your email. I too was absolutely furious at the number of spoilers in the national press this morning and we have already shouted at matt. To be fair to him, he was filing late for the paper which was automatically uploaded onto the site. I think he has an excuse because he tried to warn fans not to read on.

I sympathise though. Everyone does it and it drives lots of readers nuts. He swears there are still secrets and the times was much worse…

Janine Gibson
The Guardian

Date: 11:14:56 BST
From: Matt Wells
To: Adrian Hon

Hi Adrian

Thanks very much for your email. We faced a tricky decision last night. The BBC held a screening for several hundred invited guests at Bafta for the last episode. Many were journalists, and many were Who fans who run fanzines and websites. The BBC did not place the event under embargo, which it could have chosen to do. Indeed, it released a load of pictures to the press of the final epsiode.

My feeling was that, given the number of people present and the likelihood of leaks, the Guardian had to run a story of some kind – leading on the line that the BBC had commissioned a third series. We then thought it would be fine to drop in a couple of teasers for Saturday night’s episode, without revealing the plot entirely. And given that it has already been revealed that Christopher Eccleston is not returning as the Doctor – and, for goodness sake, the BBC’s own Doctor Who site says the episode is called Parting of the Ways – we thought it wasn’t too much of a revelation to say that (removed because this is a great big spoiler).

We didn’t go as far as the Times, which has revealed a great deal more. In any case I can assure you there is LOADS more in the final episode, and your enjoyment has not been spoiled. It’s a cracker.

Beyond all of that, I wrote a warning in the fourth paragraph that some plot details would be revealed in the rest of the story. More fool you for reading on!

Best wishes,