Writing Frankenstein

When Mount Tambora erupted in 1815, Europe experienced a ‘Year Without a Summer’.

At the time, Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin (aged 18), and her lover (and later husband) Percy Bysshe Shelley, visited Lord Byron in Switzerland. With outdoor activities being unappealing due to the poor weather, they spent a lot of time indoors. It was during this summer that Frankenstein was written.

Airport Plume Map

It’s too soon to tell how long the Icelandic volcano will continue to spew ashes into the atmosphere, and what effect it’ll have on travel and the weather. But even here at Campus Party EU – a gathering of 800 young technologists, hackers, and artists in Madrid – you can see some interesting behaviour. More than half of the attendees come from countries other than Spain, and all of them are distracted and stressed out by the challenges of getting home.

Someone suggested to me that the Campuseros could use their time stranded in Madrid to make new creative works, like Frankenstein, but perhaps as games or movies or websites. Looking around the hall right now, I see people watching Lost, playing Starcraft and Battlefield Heroes, reading Twitter, and constantly refreshing BBC News; not much creativity.

So you could easily say that the ubiquitous presence of laptops, electricity, and connectivity has more or less eliminated any chance of Mary Shelley’s enforced isolation occurring, at least for these city-dwelling geeks. Not even a volcano that covers the entire continent with ash can stop them from wasting time.

But there a few intrepid people who have used the time productively; one team here is making an interesting social Flash game about – you guessed it – flying planes across Europe, between clouds of ash. While this game could have been made without the internet, they’re certainly benefitting from online resources, development environments, and the ability to test APIs with Twitter; and when they’re done later today, they’ll be able to publish the site to the world, instantly. That’s no bad thing.

Regardless of technology, human nature – and the focus required for good, productive, creative work – remain the same. We remember Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein – we don’t remember all the people who spent the Year Without a Summer indoors, doing whatever people did in 1816 to waste time. Perhaps someone will produce a creative work that people still talk about in 2210 – and they won’t care about all the time wasted on Twitter and YouTube.

Can a Game Save the World?

On December 9th 2007, a curious event took place at the University of South Carolina football stadium. As 29,000 people filed inside, each was given a piece of paper bearing four names and phone numbers. During the event, each person called those names and asked them to vote for Obama in the coming primary election.


Those 29,000 attendees called over 35,000 voters in the space of ten minutes – enough for the Guinness Book of Records to certify the event as the ‘largest phone bank‘ in history – and all for very little cost to the Obama campaign.

The record only stood for a few months, because on August 27th 2008, a line of people six miles long – over 80,000, all told – waited for seats at Invesco Field in Denver. They were there for Obama’s acceptance speech as the Democratic nominee for the election, but once again, they were going to be called upon to help out the campaign with more phone calls.

These events were replicated hundreds of times across the country, and some were focused more directly on making calls. I recall hearing about one in which the speaker walked the attendees through how to make their very first phone call to a voter. Yes, you might be nervous, he said, but I’ll show you how to do it – and he then proceeded to make a live call through the loudspeakers. Suitably encouraged, the thousands of attendees made their own phone calls – and why not, since everyone sitting next to them was making a call.

Of course, the majority of phone calls were not made in stadiums or live events, but at home or in campaign offices. Ever tech-savvy, the Obama campaign aimed to track and analyse all calls made. Even in September 2007, during the earlier days of Obama’s primary fight, the campaign had developed online tools and leaderboards:


Naturally, there was an Obama ’08 iPhone app, which provided news updates to half a million users and (of course) encouraged users to make phone calls to votes. Over 50,000 calls were made, a figure that doesn’t include calls made by people who used an iPod Touch, and whose calls couldn’t be tracked.

Day Before Election Leaderboard by Sagolla

The campaign had a single, clear goal: get Obama elected as President of the United States. Accomplishing this goal would require gaining a majority of the delegate votes in the Democratic Presidential Primaries in over fifty states and regions; each of those states had different rules for selecting their delegates, some of them quite unusual and rather game-like. With the Primaries won, the campaign had to win the general election.

Not only did this require a massive ground operation, going door to door in every state – not only did it demand massive phonebanking operations, some of which are describe above – but it also needed hundreds of millions in donations to adverts. In the end, Obama raised over $600 million dollars, most of which came over the internet:

3 million donors made a total of 6.5 million donations online adding up to more than $500 million. Of those 6.5 million donations, 6 million were in increments of $100 or less. The average online donation was $80, and the average Obama donor gave more than once.

70,000 campaign supporters used their MyBO fundraising pages to raised $30 million from friends and family; donation meters, leaderboards, targets, goals, rewards, and achievements – all of these most powerful reward and tracking mechanism, ripped straight from game design, were applied to the business of winning the most important and most serious game of 2008: winning the US election.

And they won. Continue reading “Can a Game Save the World?”

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”


After six weeks of silence, I’ve finally updated my After Our Time weblog with a post about Antimatter. It’s the sort of thing that would otherwise have gone here, so if you’re missing my posts about science, check it out.

The Strength of Weak Ties

Anyone who’s read about social networks and the ‘tipping point’ will know how important the connections between people are. It’s not enough to look at just the number and the individuals in the connections though – you have to look at their strength. While reading an article (I forget which) about social networks, I spotted a reference to Mark Granovetter’s original 1973 paper on The Strength of Weak Ties (PDF).

This paper made an astonishing and counterintuitive claim – that weak ties between individuals are often more important than strong ties. To be clear, a strong tie might exist between family members or good friends, and a weak tie would exist between an old school friends who see each other once a year at Christmas. Granovetter’s paper is a little hard going for the first dozen or so pages, since it’s laden with a lot of theory and some specialised language, but it really gets going after that, when he starts quoting data:

In a random sample of recent professional, technical, and managerial job changers living in a Boston suburb, I asked those who found a new job through contacts how often they saw the contact around the time that he passed on job information to them…

Of those finding a job through contacts, 16.7% reported that they saw their contact often at the time, 55.6% said occasionally, and 27.8% rarely…

In many cases, the contact was someone only marginally included in the current network of contacts, such as an old college friend or a former workmate or employer, with whom sporadic contact had been maintained. Usually such ties had not even been very strong when first forged… It is remarkable that people receive crucial information from individuals whose very existence they have forgotten.

Remarkable indeed. Most people would approach friends for job leads first, not acquaintances, thinking that they would be more fruitful, but this is simply not the case (at least in general).

Towards the end of the papers is a wonderful section called ‘Weak Ties and Community Organization’. I recommend that you read it directly, since it’s written so well, but I’ll summarise below. Granovetter argues that when a community is completely partitioned into cliques, where strong ties vastly outnumber weak ties, it would be very difficult for that community to organise. Yes, you could provide news to everyone in the community, but would anyone do anything about it?:

Studies of diffusion and mass communication have shown that people rarely act on mass-media information unless it is also transmitted through personal ties… Enthusiasm for an organization in one clique, then, would not spread to others but would have to develop independently in each one to insure success.

This has powerful implications for communities shaped into cliques, such as the Italian community of Boston’s West End in the 50s and 60s, which was “unable to even form an organization to fight against the ‘urban renewal’ which ultimately destroyed it.” Weak ties are needed to allow information to spread between networks. Common sources of weak ties are clubs, work settings and formal organisations; so when you attend a conference every year, and simply spend a few minutes with a few dozen people there, you are refreshing those ties that allow information, gossip and job offers to spread.

Social networking sites like Facebook and LinkedIn allow you to formalise and track weak ties; that’s why they’re so powerful. Anyone who wants to emulate or learn from those sites would do well to look back to the original research conducted in this area.

Food Miles

Sometimes, when I come across a particularly interesting article, I try to find the research paper that it’s based on. I don’t always read the entire paper (in fact, I normally skip over huge chunks) but it’s always instructive to see the results and analysis as the original author wrote them; it’s not rare for reporters misinterpret results or selectively quote from papers, for a variety of innocent and nefarious reasons. But even if the article is excellent, I get a buzz from reading the actual research. Maybe that’s just because I’m weird, or because I occasionally hanker for my neuroscience days, but I do feel that reading papers puts you as close as you’re going to get to the scientific process.

This post and the next are both about papers I read recently. I was going to put them in a single post, but it ended up being too long, so you’ll just have to wait until tomorrow for the second one.

Food Miles

The New York Times ran an op/ed piece called Food That Travels Well about the use of ‘food miles’ when it comes to labelling and buying food. The idea is simple – you find out how far each piece of food has travelled to reach a supermarket, you print that on the packaging, and let consumers decide whether they want to buy it. The unspoken but obvious assumption here is that the more miles food has travelled, the more carbon dioxide has been released, and the worse it is for the environment. Thus, you should favour local produce over foreign produce, even if it costs more, because it’s better for the environment.

When I first heard about food miles, I immediately thought there was something fishy about it. Apart from smacking of protectionism, it ignored a whole host of factors, such as the means of transport. If you’re (say) loading ten thousand tonnes of potatoes on a ship from America to the UK, will that release more carbon dioxide, per potato, than driving five tonnes of potatoes on a truck from one end of a county to another? The answer is, I have no idea. But it’s clear that some forms of transport are more polluting than others, and just looking at the physical distance covered is a poor way of measuring environmental impact.

The op/ed piece was about research conducted by Lincoln University in New Zealand, which went way beyond my transport concerns by doing a life cycle analysis on the transport and production of food. In other words, they looked at:

…Water use, harvesting techniques, fertilizer outlays, renewable energy applications, means of transportation (and the kind of fuel used), the amount of carbon dioxide absorbed during photosynthesis, disposal of packaging, storage procedures and dozens of other cultivation inputs.

What did they find?

…Lamb raised on New Zealand’s clover-choked pastures and shipped 11,000 miles by boat to Britain produced 1,520 pounds of carbon dioxide emissions per ton while British lamb produced 6,280 pounds of carbon dioxide per ton, in part because poorer British pastures force farmers to use feed. In other words, it is four times more energy-efficient for Londoners to buy lamb imported from the other side of the world than to buy it from a producer in their backyard. Similar figures were found for dairy products and fruit.

How similar? Referring to the original paper, Food Miles – Comparative Energy/Emissions Performance of New Zealand’s Agriculture Industry (PDF) by Saunders, Barber and Taylor:

The UK uses twice as much energy per tonne of milk solids produced than NZ, even including the energy associated with transport from NZ to the UK This reflects the less intensive production system in NZ than the UK, with lower inputs including energy…

NZ is also more energy efficient in producing and delivering apples to the UK market than the UK is. NZ energy costs for production are a third of those in the UK. Even when transport is added NZ energy costs are approximately 60 per cent of those in the UK. Consequentially the CO2 emissions per tonne of apples produced are also higher in the UK than in NZ, reflecting the higher energy use but also the lower emissions from NZ electricity generation.

This shouldn’t be surprising. Most foods grow better in some parts of the world than others; considerably better. Looking at the raw data, the UK uses vastly greater quantities of nitrogen fertiliser than NZ, partly due to those clover fields mentioned earlier. When it comes to dairy production, the UK has to bring in comparatively huge amounts of cereals and concentrates to feed animals, whereas in NZ, animals can graze outside all year round. All of this releases more carbon dioxide and pollution.

The point is, no matter what your priorities are, you can’t make a sensible decision on food purchases based solely on the distance food has travelled to get to your plate. There are good reasons for why someone might want to favour local produce over foreign produce. The environment is not necessarily one of them.

Bits and Pieces: Left Turns

The research at U.P.S. is paying off. Last year, it cut 28 million miles from truck routes — saving roughly three million gallons of fuel — in good part by mapping routes that minimize left turns.

Incredible – something that seems obvious in retrospect, but in practice hard to implement. Interestingly, it wouldn’t work in the UK, since you have to stop at red lights whichever direction you’re turning.

Also, a couple of good passages from the book on weather I’m reading:

When sunlight hits the atmosphere, the light waves are scattered in different directions by dust particles and air molecules. The shorter violet and blue waves are scattered more effectively than the orange and red ones. The effect is similar to what happens when ripples in water encounter a swimmer: small ripples are deflected while large waves continue past the obstacle undisturbed.

A mixture of violet, blue, green, and tiny amounts of the other colours is scattered across the sky. The combination of these colours is blue. The exact shade of blue will vary according to the amount of dust and water vapour in the air. Water droplets and dust particles enhance scattering, increasing the amount of green and yellow and turning the sky a paler blue.

This is why the summer skies of densely populated European countries seem paler than those of vast, sparsely populated areas such as Australia and Africa.

This is one of the clearest, most concise explanations of ‘why is the sky blue’ that I’ve seen yet. Not only does it explain the science in full, not only does it give a very visual and accurate analogy with the swimmer, but it also explores the consequences of the explanation in a way that will be immediately familiar. This is in stark contrast to the ‘explanation’ proffered by the Guardian, ‘A daytime sky is blue because molecules in the air scatter blue light from the sun more than they scatter red light,’ which explains nothing.

Meteorologists distinguish between skill and no-skill forecasting methods. If we consider rainfall prediction, two basic no-skill methods appear to give impressive results. The first is the persistence method, which is simply forecasting tomorrow’s rain to be the same as today’s. In middle latitudes, this typically gives results of about 70% accuracy, but of course fails to predict changes.

The other no-skill method, the climatological method, uses long-term averages. If, for example, the statistics for a particular location show that during January there is an average of 10 rainy days, then we would forecast rain every third day. Our forecasting accuracy would again be about 70% for many middle-latitude locations.

These methods take no account of the actual weather. For a forecasting technique to demonstrate skill, it must be more accurate than these no-skill approaches.

For some reason, it pleases me to know that you can reach a 70% accuracy in weather forecast simply by saying ‘tomorrow is going to be the same as today’. It makes me understand how priests and shamans could get away with their predictions.

Beating the Hive Mind

“What’s this?” I asked, toying with a white cylinder with letters printed across it.

“It’s a cryptex,” explained Eric Harshbarger, one of Mind Candy’s in-house puzzle designers. “Like the one from the Da Vinci Code.”

In The Da Vinci Code, a cryptex is a cylinder with five wheels that can be rotated independently; each wheel has letters printed on it, and if you line up the wheels properly, it’ll open. The puzzle to open the cryptex in the movie was rather boring, but Eric had come up with a much more interesting multi-stage puzzle and then constructed it himself. He’d brought the cryptex, along with some other fun physical puzzles, to San Francisco for our live event there last year.

While we walked down to a nearby cafe for breakfast, Eric mentioned how he’d visited Google a couple of days earlier with the cryptex and shown it to some of the puzzle-fans there, including Wei-Hwa Huang, the designer of Google’s Da Vinci Code puzzle quest. Immediately, Wei-Hwa and two other Googlers threw themselves on the task, and within two or three hours, had figured it out. Thus the challenge was set: could we beat Google?

Personally, I didn’t think so. Those guys not only live and breathe puzzles, they actually spend a lot of time solving them. So I passed (I didn’t have a few hours to spare), and instead played around with some of Eric’s wooden puzzles while David Varela, a writer at Mind Candy, busied himself with the cryptex.

Thirty minutes later, David had solved the cryptex. He had beaten Google. And he didn’t even have a computer, let alone a piece of paper. Continue reading “Beating the Hive Mind”

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.