Can the Science Museum be up-to-date?

I visit the Science Museum in London at least twice a year, so I was interested to read an interview with their new Director, talking about how he’s going to change the place:

A month into his job, Professor Rapley is sitting in his South Kensington office, telling me that broadly the museum’s collection celebrates “the advances in technology since the Industrial Revolution, right up to, but not quite including, today”.

He wants to turn that on its head. “Its image is that it looks backwards through its collection. It’s a museum, it’s historical, and it’s for children. Where we want to go with it, the tag line is, ‘the museum of the future’.” He would like the museum to be sufficiently up-to-date that someone seeing, say, a climate-change sceptic on TV, might think, “I’m confused about climate change. I’d better go to the Science Museum and see what they’re presenting in order to help me make up my mind.”

Prof. Rapley is spot on when he says that ‘it’s a museum, it’s historical, and it’s for children’. I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing (and I suspect he agrees), but I’m pleased with his desire to make the museum more up-to-date for adults. Unfortunately, I remain to be convinced that he’ll be able to accomplish this.

Every single science museum I’ve visited (including ones in London, Liverpool, Glasgow, DC, Seattle, Philadelphia, San Diego, Amsterdam, San Francisco and Sydney) tries to stay up-to-date with scientific developments with exactly the same methods:

  • Scientific news stories shown on computer touchscreens and big TVs

Basically useless. If you’re an adult in a science museum, you probably know a little about science, and you will know how to use the internet. So why bother coming in to a museum to read about science news on a computer, when you can do that at home?

  • Quarterly, or perhaps monthly, standing displays on scientific issues

Not current enough – people forget about stuff after a month, certainly three months.

  • Short talks from scientists, a few times a day

Not only do visitors need to be aware of when the talks are happening, but they need to be there on time and have the patience to sit through it. This is an unlikely confluence of events.

  • Guys dressed in white labcoats sitting behind a desk, ready to answer scientific questions

Who talks to these guys? what are you supposed to say? ‘What are your views on stem cells?’ No-one expects someone to be knowledgeable in every scientific discipline, so that further dissuades any questions.

So, you can see why I am very doubtful about the ability of the Science Museum to stay up-to-date. Continue reading “Can the Science Museum be up-to-date?”

Great Success = Some Talent + A Lot of Luck

Spotted this wonderful, and very accurate, ‘equation’ by Daniel Kahneman:

The Secret of Regression to Mediocrity

Success = Some Talent + Luck
Great Success = Some Talent + A Lot of Luck

The term ‘regression to mediocrity’ (also known as ‘regression to the mean’) was first coined by Francis Galton in 1886. Galton showed that, on average, the children of tall parents tended to be shorter than their parents, and that the children of short parents tended to be taller than their parents.

Say what?

The point is that height is partly determined by your genes, and partly by the environment you grow up in (e.g. food, healthcare, etc). A confluence of good genes and a good environment might produce a very tall person. If that tall person has a child with another tall person, sure, the child will have good genes – but they certainly aren’t guaranteed to have a good environment. In fact, they’re probably just going to have an average environment. That means that the child, on average, just isn’t going to be as tall as their parents.

This applies for all sorts of different things wherever luck, or random chance, is involved. Take gambling. Imagine I win the World Series of Poker this year. Now, if this happened, you would agree that I must be a pretty excellent poker player; perhaps even the best poker player in the entire world. Would you expect me to win next year? Even 50% odds? Probably not. But why? Continue reading “Great Success = Some Talent + A Lot of Luck”

Chabudai Gaeshi

In a lecture that Shigeru Miyamoto (creator of Mario, Zelda, Nintendogs, etc) gave to Toyko University in 2003, he talked about how he gets a game completed:

First you have to decide what to complete the game around. “This is what the game’s about!” You have to fish out the core, the fun part of the game. However, the director has his own desires; he wants to put this and that into the game. Plus, if everyone in the project is just trying to get along with each other, then it could all fall apart. You fall into the dilemma where the guys up top are like “Are you working, or what?!” and the guys down below are like “See, it’s the people up top! What can you do?”, and the project begins to go haywire. When it gets to that point, I bust it all out in a conference. People refer to that point as the time where I “knock over the table”. I’m not a nice guy; if I was a nice guy I’d just sidle up to people and say “Why don’t you do this?”, but no, sometimes you have to bite down and show that, like, “I’m stroonng!” (laughs) When I flip out, it’s because I’m being sincere in my desire to get something done with the project.

The first time I read this, I had this wonderful image in my mind of Miyamoto literally storming into a room and upending a table in front of dozens of developers. I really thought that was what happened, until earlier this evening, when I read an interview on Nintendo.com about the development of Wii Fit, a fitness game.

Most interviews on corporate websites tend to be self-congratulatory, anodyne, and devoid of any useful insights; and the bigger, the company, the worse the interview. So, with Nintendo being an enormous company, and the interview being conducted by the CEO, you would expect it be approaching the informational equivalent of absolute zero. And yes, the interview is somewhat self-congratulatory. Then again, Wii Fit is a completely original game and it sold a million copies in Japan alone, so maybe they have some reason for that. However, it certainly doesn’t lack insights.

What struck me about the interview is the perverse delight that both Satoru Iwata (CEO) and Shigeru Miyamoto (game designer) take in tearing up schedules, changing decisions at the last minute, and providing apparently useless feedback:

Miyamoto: At first, I’d have them bring me what they’d made, only to repeatedly send them away again, saying things like “No, that’s not quite it”.

Now, this occasionally happens to me, and I just hate it. I suspect the people who Miyamoto talks to hate it as well. The difference is, it seems, is that Nintendo appear to have all the time in the world to let Miyamoto keep on saying “No, that’s not quite it” and eventually they’ll come up with some multi-million unit-selling game.

Then we come to my favourite part in the interview, where they revel in the whirlwind of chaos that ensued later in development: Continue reading “Chabudai Gaeshi”

Let’s make an Oscar-winning movie…

…or not.

There’s an interesting article on the New York Times about the recent blossoming of internet comedy, partly thanks to the Writer’s Guild of America strike (will it continue after it ends, I wonder?). In it, there’s an interesting quote:

“I love it when people say, ‘I want to make a viral video,’ because it’s like saying, ‘Let’s make an Oscar-winning movie,’ or, like, ‘Let’s write a best-selling book,’ “ Ms. Cackowski said. “You can’t force that.”

There are an awful lot of people who need to read that. I’ve heard, “Why don’t we just make Lonelygirl?” or “How about we do a Flash game like Bejeweled?” a truly depressing number of times. Hey fellas, it’s not like I’m holding out on you – if I had a formula, then I’d be doing it. Probably for myself. But it’s just not that easy. The longer you work at it, the harder you realise it is.