University

Interesting article from today’s New York Times, What a College Education Buys:

Moreover, if you’re not planning on becoming, say, a doctor, the benefits of diligent study can be overstated. In recent decades, the biggest rewards have gone to those whose intelligence is deployable in new directions on short notice, not to those who are locked into a single marketable skill, however thoroughly learned and accredited. Most of the employees who built up, say, Google in its early stages could never have been trained to do so, because neither the company nor the idea of it existed when they were getting their educations. Under such circumstances, it’s best not to specialize too much. Something like the old ideal of a “liberal education” has had a funny kind of resurgence, minus the steeping in Western culture. It is hard to tell whether this success vindicates liberal education’s defenders (who say it “teaches you how to think”) or its detractors (who say it camouflages a social elite as a meritocratic one).

Most people would agree that being skilled in multiple areas is a useful thing, but I don’t think people realise quite how useful. At a simple level, in Mind Candy we’re setting up a page where we list people’s ‘secret ninja skills’ – skills that aren’t their primary specialty, but can be called upon if necessary (e.g. photography, drawing, designing presentations, writing HTML, etc). Yet as the article suggests, Google and similar startups aren’t the result of specific courses, but of people who had diverse backgrounds.

Becoming and remaining flexible in university and in life adds something that can’t be measured in terms of grades or marks, only in originality, success and long-term happiness. Part of the reason why this subject interests me is because I’m finding it hard to describe what sort of specific skills are useful for ARG designers, beyond grasp of gameplay and story and the ‘ability to deploy intelligence in new directions on very short notice’.

Lost and Found

After two years, the Cube has been found, and with it comes the end of Season 1 of Perplex City. A couple of days ago, we launched a new site at perplexcity.com (we call it the Puzzle Portal); it’s still in beta, but there are going to be some good changes over the next few weeks.

We’re also hard at work preparing for Season 2. In fact, we’ve been doing that for quite a while now. I’m remaining quite tight-lipped about what’s going to be in our second season, so as not to spoil the surprise, but I will be saying a few things while I’m over in San Francisco for the Game Developers Conference (I’ll be there from 3rd to 9th March, in case you want to meet up).

My talk at GDC, The New Alternate Reality Games, is on Friday 9th at 12:20pm, and I’ll be talking about new trends in ARGs and the direction we’re heading in for Season 2. I’m also going to be giving a talk at Google on Monday, and a video will be posted on the web at some point in the future. The Google talk will focus on how you interact with ARGs.

Finally, a couple of other Perplex City things. Firstly, come along to the Perplex City Party at the Gherkin in London this Saturday! It’ll be a lot of fun. Secondly, Andy Darley’s story of how he found the Cube is well worth reading. He’s a great storyteller and we’re happy that someone like him found it.

Cars off the road

M&S unveils carbon-neutral target (BBC News):

M&S said the carbon savings it aimed to achieve under its plan would be like taking 100,000 cars off the road each year.

Lately, I’ve been seeing a lot of environmental plans being measured in the number of cars taken off the road. I did a search on Google News and came up with a long list. I’ve selected a few below:

Earth Hour’s initial goal is to reduce Sydney’s greenhouse gas emissions by 5 per cent over the next year, the equivalent of eliminating 75,000 medium sized cars off the road for one year. (Sydney Morning Herald)

The Greater Gabbard (GG) scheme supplying 500MW through 140-turbines will cut CO2 emissions by 1.5m tonnes a year – the equivalent of taking 350,000 cars off the road. (Press Release)

The California standard, Schwarzenegger said, will reduce carbon emissions by 13 million metric tons annually, equal to taking 3 million cars off the road. (Washington Post)

Just supplying Americans with plastic water bottles for one year consumes more than 47 million gallons of oil, enough to take 100,000 cars off the road and 1 billion pounds of carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere, according to the Container Recycling Institute. (SFGate)

While reducing carbon dioxide emissions is a good thing, I wasn’t sure whether measuring emissions in units of ‘cars’ is the best idea. It’s not a bad idea – it’s a very familiar unit to people, and everyone knows that cars produce pollution. And certainly companies and politicians like it, because it results in impressively high-sounding numbers, given the standard benchmark of 1 car = 4.3 metric tonnes of carbon dioxide. But do people really understand it? Exactly how many ‘cars of pollution’ are on the road? Indeed, at the rate that cars are being taken off the road, you begin to wonder whether there’ll be any cars left soon – or more pertinently, how much do cars actually contribute to total carbon dioxide emissions?

Based on this government report (Defra), road transport accounted for about 22% of carbon dioxide emissions in the UK in 2005. That 22% represents 120 million tonnes of carbon dioxide – or about 28 million ‘car units’*, which means that the UK’s entire emissions are equivalent to 129 million cars. That’s a lot of cars to take off the road – but not as many as I’d expected. So perhaps the measurement isn’t as bad as I thought, although it wouldn’t hurt reporters to put their measurements into context.

Yeah, like that’ll happen.

*There are about 32 million real cars in the UK, so the estimate of 4.3 tonnes per car isn’t bad at all, when you average things out.

PowerPlay Golf

From BBC News Online:

In PowerPlay Golf, each green has two holes instead of one, with a black flag denoting a more difficult pin placing and a white flag the easier one.

Over nine holes, players have to make three powerplays where they have to go for the harder option.

(…) Other innovations being considered include placing a 30-foot diameter circle around the last black flag hole. Players can win bonus points for landing shots within the circle but will lose points for misses.

It sounds fun, but it doesn’t seem like the sort of people who watch golf would be interested by something like this; either they’d find it silly and childish, or they don’t find normal golf sufficiently boring to switch. Golf on TV is heavily edited as it is. I suppose it might attract new followers, but I’m not convinced that this is fast and interesting enough for the ‘kids’.

It’d make a great game on the Wii though.

Their Say

I’m not sure whether I’ve mentioned how much I hate the Have Your Say section on BBC News Online (surely a forum the BBC must be ashamed of) – if I haven’t, then I’ll have to do a post about it some time. Anyway, it occasionally throws up some real gems:

Q: Should we build 600 large electricity pylons from windfarms in the Highlands to Central Scotland, or should we bury the wires underground?

Most answers: Businesses make so much money, they should pay for burying the lines / I hate Scotland / I hate England / Windfarms don’t work anyway / Climate change would blow down the pylons

Best answer: I think the pylons should be built, because they have a real charm and beauty to them. Objecting to their appearance is like objecting to railway bridges and aqueducts. Also I think they should be painted red, white and blue, to celebrate 300 years of the Union. This would add to the gaiety of the Highland scenery, and be a good post-modern joke, enjoyable on several levels. And it would provide much-needed work for hundreds of Scotch labourers.

Kingdom of Letters

I have an almost unhealthy interest in eBook readers – tablet computers that are made specifically for reading. eBook readers tend to use low-power, high-resolution screens that are easily readable in all light levels; and most importantly, they can hold hundreds of books. Unfortunately, no-one has made a particularly good eBook reader yet, despite my incessant checking of gadget and eBook blogs. They all have some problem, whether it’s slow software, high price, bad fonts or low battery life, and I don’t think that situation will change until the end of this year.

eBook blogs like mobileread.com seem a bit dejected by the lack of good news, and have resorted to posting all sorts of unnecessary news. This piece, however, caught my eye:

1/3 of high school graduates never read another book for the rest of their lives.
42 percent of college graduates never read another book after college.
80 percent of U.S. families did not buy or read a book last year.
70 percent of U.S. adults have not been in a bookstore in the last five years.
57 percent of new books are not read to completion.
70 percent of books published do not earn back their advance.
70 percent of the books published do not make a profit.

This apocalyptic vision of books is incredible. I know I read a lot of books – I have hundreds in my flat – and I know that most people don’t read anywhere near as much as I do. I can believe most of the statistics, that most books are not finished. But can it really be true that 42% of college graduate never read another book after college? Or 1/3 of high school graduates never read another book for the rest of their lives? It’s not clear how the statistics were compiled, but even if they’re remotely accurate, it’s a frightening thought. There’s so much knowledge that I’ve only found through books that is effectively invisible to non-readers.

After seeing this, it struck me that sales of Harry Potter and The Da Vinci Code probably approximate the entire book market in the English-speaking world. Harry Potter sold, at most, 17 million copies in the US. Worldwide sales of The Da Vinci Code only reach 60.5 million copies (as of May 2006). If you add together the populations of the US, UK, Canada and Australia, you get over 400 million people (never mind the rest of the world). Considering the enormous amount of hype both books received, you suddenly realise that hardly anyone actually reads books – even easy books!

You could argue, then, that the cultural impact of books is hugely overstated; but then again, books are the source for many other, more popular media (e.g. films). Reading is also vastly overrepresented by people with money and influence.

A tempting possibility is that not that many people ever read books in the first place. However, I’m not sure about this one. Literacy has certainly risen over the past couple of centuries, but so has the amount of competition for our leisure time, especially in the 20th century. If I had to guess, I would say that the proportion of the population that read regularly was at its highest just before radios became available. Still, I doubt that was much higher than what it is now.

Another point is that while book reading may be declining, people are reading more from magazines and on the Internet. This is undeniable, but completely ignores the quality of the text.

The situation in the UK is slightly better:

In a survey of 2,000 adults, a third had not bought a new book in the previous 12 months. 34% said they did not read books. (Expanding the Market, Book Marketing Ltd, 2004)

That means that a whopping two thirds of the UK population claim to have bought at least one book in 2003. Judging by bestseller lists that are packed full of celebrity autobiographies, there’s not much reason for optimism on the quality of these books, but I suppose that’s always been true.

So, what’s to be done? Well, I have no idea. Maybe things will change when eBook readers become cheap and you can buy books for pennies. Or maybe people will always just prefer watching TV, some of which is really rather good. But if you want to live in an enlightened society, I think that’s only achievable if people know and understand the complex stories and concepts that can best be conveyed – and in some cases, only be conveyed – via books.