New comments system

I’ve added a new comments feature to the ‘middling’ column, since due to the nature of ‘massive’ I hardly ever post there. They won’t be activated on all posts however, but I’ve put them on this one in case people have anything interesting to say about previous posts.

New Mars

I mentioned on Tiny that the New Mars forums had hit 1000 posts three days ago, after first coming online last September about eight months ago. That might not seem like a lot of traffic – in fact, averaged over 240 days that’s only a bit more than four posts a day. I write more emails than that in an afternoon.

Yet in the last three days, we’ve practically hit 1100 posts. That gives an average of 30 posts per day, which is not too shabby. Of course, it’s not as if there was a sudden transition from 4 posts a day to 30; by checking the website logs I can see that there’s been a fairly linear growth of traffic during its existence.

Nevertheless, in the past few days traffic has literally rocketed. I’m obviously very happy about it – my intention in becoming editor of the New Mars online magazine was primarily to create a coherent Internet community for Mars advocates which would in time develop the ability to do very useful and important things. I expected it to take a long time to grow – communities don’t just appear overnight, not even when they have a good feeder mechanism (New Mars is the official magazine of the Mars Society and it hosts the official forums). Yet a month or two ago, when we were lingering around the 600 or 700 mark, I did a few calculations and decided that it would still take a long while to get to 1000.

So – where did this traffic spike come from? I have a few possible and non-exclusion explanations:

1) The simple explanation is that the exponential growth trend finally exhibited itself. By that, I mean as more and more posts were made, more and more readers found interesting things to say and to reply to, and they made links to the site which other people followed, and so on. But this still wouldn’t account for such a sudden growth spurt.

2) We were nearing the 1000 post mark anyway, people got excited and decided to start posting lots. I am doubtful this can explain it all.

3) I introduced a rating system for all members which gave them titles and stars dependent on the number of posts they made. I know for a fact that this is a good incentive for people to post more, as they strive to get that coveted third star.

There are more explanations, but I’ve forgotten them. Anyway, it’s all very interesting and if the current rate of traffic continues we’ll hit 2000 posts in a little over a month’s time. By the end of this year, the problem could well be that there is too much traffic.

But what the hell, that’s a good thing. And I’m sure I and others can figure out ways to channel that activity into productive avenues. Sometimes I wonder what the Mars online community could have done by now if we’d set up proper forum systems back in ’98.


Played Scrabble at the pub last night – got 309 points, most of which came from oxygen, squadron (used all seven letter – extra 50 points) and fazed (triple word score).

Foreign emoticons

Inspired by a post on the Culture mailing list, I was going to write something about the universality of emoticons on the Internet between different cultures and languages here. I then realised that it was far more interesting than I first envisaged and so it deserves a full write up. Expect a new article in the near future (by which, I mean a week).


Something popped into my head today as I was scribbling down some notes during a supervision: does the fact that I write with a pencil (as opposed to a pen or biro) affect my writing style, and on a higher level, my method of thinking?

Pencils provide a much less constrained and linear way of putting thoughts down onto paper, in that pencil marks can be easily and quickly erased. Thus, I’m not too bothered with making the occasional correction or altering what I’ve written so that it’s more accurate, whereas if I used some non-erasable implement that option wouldn’t be open to me. Conversely, perhaps using a pencil is making me lazy and those who write using pens have less cause to make corrections.

Taking this further, what about writing on the computer? Words, sentences and paragraphs can all be moved about at the click of a button, and rarely does a supervisor not warn us against getting into a habit of writing all essays on the computer, as this won’t help us write essays in exams. I tried writing an essay on paper a couple of weeks ago, and it went down perfectly fine. In fact, I probably did it faster than I would’ve done on the computer since I could draw diagrams quicker. Score one for paper.

As others have said, probably the best solution would combine the qualities of paper and computers – I imagine some kind of smart paper which you can either write on (it has handwriting recognition, naturally) or hook up to a wireless keyboard would be ideal (many people can type faster than they can write). You’d be able to annotate the paper and move sentences and words about with ease, and it’d be intuitive for all users. It’ll probably be on the market in another ten years.


Getting a stereo view of Mars – the boys at NASA are pretty damn clever; they’re planning to obtain 3D images of areas the Mars Global Surveyor has already covered by pointing the spacecraft off-nadir (so it doesn’t point directly down).