Much as I hate to perpetuate memes like this, the whole saga of YouTube’s lonelygirl15 has just hit Metafilter. Basically, someone has posted a bunch of video diaries to YouTube purporting to be a young homeschooled girl with ultra-religious parents. She’s having drama with a boy, and she appears to be involved in some satanic cult.

If it’s not fake, I will surely print out this blog post and eat it. It’s too well produced, too ‘instantly popular’, too well written and altogether too pat. My top two theories are that it’s a promotion for a movie (follow the links on the Mefi post) or it’s an ‘original drama’ for YouTube. I feel slightly depressed that people would even entertain the possibility that the video diaries are genuine, but then again most probably aren’t as sensitised to ‘fake’ fiction as I’ve inevitably become.

I’ve posted a few times in the Metafilter thread with more thoughts – just scroll down to see them.


Now with photos!

I’ve been to a lot of science musuems. Off the top of my head, I’ve visited major museums in London, Glasgow, DC, Seattle, Philadelphia, San Diego, Amsterdam and Sydney – and a host of smaller places besides. As I’ve written before, I don’t go with the intention of actually learning anything; the intended audience for science museums is rather less knowledgable than I am (conversely, I learn more from history museums). Instead, I love to see the different ways in which people are trying to explain scientific concepts. It’s never an easy task, and some museums are better than others in this regard, but what I do learn are interesting ways in which you can engage, educate and entertain a diverse audience.

The Exploratorium in San Francisco isn’t just next door to the Palace of Fine Arts, where we held the Perplex City live event last week – it shares the very same structure. Despite this, I didn’t even get a chance to look at its front door until some days after it was all over. I resolved to make a proper visit though; while I didn’t know much about it, I’d heard it mentioned over and over again, and it surely had to be good, sitting in the world’s creative and technology capital.

Picture a science museum. It probably has an imposing, classical facade, with a wide lobby. Inside, there are a number of areas which you can visit, so you dither in front of a map and go to Physics. It’s a middling-sized area, with a mix of banners, wall posters, computers and various exhibits. Tourists drift around, and children zip between the hands-on exhibits, frantically pressing all available buttons when they can get to the front. Their parents follow around in tow, occasionally studying the wall posters or poking at the computers. Some of the hands-on exhibits don’t work, and there seems to be an awful lot of reading to be done.

This basically describes about 70-80% of the science museums I’ve been to. They’re perfectly fine, but nothing special. The better museums have more interactive exhibits and are slightly more freeform.

Now picture the Exploratorium. Continue reading “Exploratorium”

San Francisco

Some San Francisco thoughts:

Despite being a fairly small city, it’s very difficult to get around. We used a car for most of the time, but this only worked because we had a person who was happy driving us around all the time. As for public transport, it was initially very confusing. Here were some questions: What’s the difference between the MUNI and the BART? Do they run on the same lines? Can you get passes for both? Does the MUNI include buses? Are those metro trains in the MUNI or the BART? Is the F-Market tram a bus or a train? All pretty ridiculous, and a far cry from the relative simplicity of Transport for London.

Cycling seems like it might work, although that depends on whether you can bypass hills. It’s a much better bet for exploring the surrounding areas – I cycled for 20 miles across the Golden Gate Bridge, Sausalito and Tiburon, which was an excellent and healthy way to decompress after the event.

San Francisco has the highest number of crazies per square foot than any other city I’ve been to. I can think of a few explanations for this, but I’m not convinced by any of them.

With the weak dollar, food and drink everywhere is positively cheap. In fact, rents and house prices also seem fine. Of course, this is compared to London, the most expensive interesting place to live in the world, but still – let no San Franciscan complain of high prices ever again.

Organising the largest Perplex City live event ever, in a city that’s over 5000 miles away from our base, was incredibly difficult. It was even more difficult given that we didn’t have any staff based on the west coast – which is, of course, also eight hours behind the UK. Despite all of the pain incurred while setting it up, I think it was a success – we had a great response from people there, who were glad to see us hold a major event in the US. Indeed, it’s worth noting that there are now about as many Perplex City players in the US as there are in the UK. Not everything worked as planned, which I am sorry about, but the event was incredibly ambitious (major offline live event simultaneous with online event? It’s tricky when you do it for the first time) and the important thing is that people had fun.

With 40,000 players, Perplex City is no longer a small game by any measure. Expectations have risen, and we have to raise our game to meet them. I read all the feedback that I can, and have already spent a lot of time thinking about how to do better for future events. However, the fact that we had such a good response from the players in San Francisco means that we’re obviously doing something right.

One of the best things about the event was the sheer mix of people there – there were families galore, from babies and infants to grandparents, all working together; there were men and women in equal number; and there were people from all backgrounds. There aren’t many games out there that’ll bring people together like that for a common (and fun) cause.

Star formation

Another long-haul flight, another blog post. After I’ve exhausted the in-flight movies, this month’s issues of Scientific American and the New Yorker, listened to one and a half episodes of In Our Time, and even done some work, I’ve had to fall back to the option of last resort – writing a post for this weblog.

There’s something about long distance travel that engenders it to writing diaries or journals. For me, it’s a combination of being forced to spend lots of time thinking about nothing in particular, and soaking up large amounts of varied information from articles, podcasts and observations in general about people and airports.

Airports – now who couldn’t be moved to write a few hundred words about them? They’re an experience that everyone has to suffer once in a while, a shared environment that exists independent of location. Personally, I’ve often thought of airports as being extremely slow teleportation devices, in that you move between two near-identical buildings without any experience of the space in between them. Even the styling of airports resembles teleporters, from the retro ‘2001’ space-age look (60s US airports) to the high-tech space-age look (00s Chinese airports). Unfortunately the analogy falls apart when you spend 90 minutes waiting in immigration at JFK, but otherwise it’s a nice though.

US immigration – surely one of the worst flying experiences ever. No doubt in theory the fingerprinting and photo process shouldn’t take thatlong, but the geniuses in charge of the process forgot two things. One, that the immigration desks would be chronically underfunded and understaffed; and two, that there is a high proportion of fuckwits (and I use the term after some consideration) that pass through airports and slow the entire process down for everyone. Clearly the challenge of filling out a couple of forms and correctly stating your nationality was just too much for a good 75% of people – although the incredibly poorly designed forms didn’t help matters. I found myself wondering whatever had happened to the US free market – why can’t someone set up a few fast-track immigration lanes that you could pay $5 to use? I certainly would’ve stumped up the money to save myself an hour.

I also felt sorry for the US citizens who had to go through immigration. When entering the UK, EU citizens just have to flash their passports and get waved through. I have no idea what happens to US citizens, except that it seems to take about ten times longer. So much for American ingenuity.

One of the In Our Time podcasts I listened to was about galaxies. Normally, In Our Time’s treatment of science is not quite as good as the arts or humanities – I put this down to Melyvn Bragg’s slight disdain for the field, and the sad fact that many scientists just aren’t good communicators. However, this one was pretty good, mainly because there was a charming American scientist on the panel.

One of the interesting facts in the program was to do with the Milky Way’s spiral arms. What with all the ‘photos’ of the Milky Way showing the magnificent spirals (obviously they aren’t photos, since we’re in the Milky Way), you would think that all of the stars are packed into those arms. But apparently, they’re not. The stars in our galaxy are actually formed into a disc, so they’re also present ‘in between’ the arms. The arms themselves are regions of star formation, and because the new stars shine so brightly and light up the gas around them, that’s why the arms outshine the rest of the galaxy.

What’s even more interesting is that the spiral arms do not travel at the same speed of rotation of stars within the galaxy – it’s a bit like the way in which waves in the ocean aren’t composed of water that’s moving sideways, they’re composed of water moving up and down. The arms are also waves – they’re compression waves that roll around the Milky Way, collapsing the clouds of gas that lie in between the stars so that they form new stars. Where do the clouds of gas come from? From the ashes of exploded stars – which are themselves the engine of the compression waves.

*The Earth takes about 250 million years to travel around the galaxy.

The first time I heard this wasn’t from the podcast, it was from Will Wright at GDC this year. Because of a common connection, we happened to be at the same dinner one night and he, as ever, was talking about Spore. I was supposed to be talking about Perplex City and ARGs, which I did with a few folks, but I neglected my duties with Will and instead spent my time learning about spiral arms and swapping ideas about the chirality of amino acids (I think Will was pleased to find someone at the conference who also knew about astrobiology). I remember being absolutely fascinated by the notion of the spiral arms being a natural phenomenon writ impossibly large, like the carbon cycle or tectonics, but on the scale of hundreds of thousands of light years. Something that everyone recognises as being beautiful – the spiral arms of our galaxy – is made even more beautiful by knowing how it works.

I was impressed (although admittedly slightly dubious) by Will’s intention to actually show players in Spore how this worked in an interactive fashion. It’s not as if anyone needs to know the mechanism of star formation in our galaxy, but it’s one of those wonderful, perfect facts that just makes startling sense.