Saturday, November 18

You'll notice a little feature at the bottom of every post that will allow you to discuss them - more on this later.

8:45 AM | permalink | discuss

Friday, November 17

I've become very interested in the idea of laying the foundations for online communities, what with the Generation Mars project coming online soon, so I've been doing a fair bit of research on the Internet lately.

Designing Online Communities - my starting point for my research, and a course run at Stanford University. It has a large number of pertinent links.

Design Principles for Online Communities - a more theoretical look at group dynamics in online communities and how they relate to real life.

Virtual Communities - ISOC '98 - practical details about online community building. Not entirely relevant and a little dated, but it still has a few interesting points.

A transcript of Designing for Online Communities: Practical Lessons for Co-Created Spaces - very enlightening and well worth a read. Full of practical advice.

The Economies of Online Cooperation: Gifts and Public Goods in Cyberspace - some good points about the gift-economy and what individuals gain from communities.

Problems of Conflict Management in Virtual Communities - not quite so relevant, but an interesting read about interactions in a MUD environment.

Tinysociety, and how to make one - an incredibly compelling (but not strictly relevant) read about how the world's most famous realtime online community, LambdaMOO, coped with the virtual rape of several of its characters and how the entire community transformed in its wake.

What follows is a relatively interconnected series of thoughts and quotes from the above sites. These will probably be written up (at least partially) into a much more coherent form this weekend.

And one last thing - I find the very of seeding (not creating, because I believe that by definition communities cannot be created) a highly interesting and useful challenge; it's one thing to discuss it beforehand, and with hindsight, but to do it actively is another thing. Hopefully I'll be able to keep an open dialogue of my thoughts about the Generation Mars community as it grows. What is different about Generation Mars compared to other online communities? I hope that Generation Mars might grow to become a community that can get things done and accomplish real, large and difficult goals.

And finally, my thoughts...

Much of the group dynamics in communities - online or not - is founded in the whole act of altruism vs. selfishness. From this concept springs forth the whole game theory scenarios, Prisoner's Dilemma and...

The use of the commons, i.e. common resources and work. How do we ensure the effective use and non-abuse of work and resources?

How will new members be attracted to the Generation Mars community in its initial stages?

Clearly internal disputes are a major factor into the success of communities. How can these disputes be resolved without it seeming as if there is some kind of dictatorial power in control? Obvious (yet not wholly unproblematic) solutions include the monitoring and rating of individuals and posts by community members themselves. This idea has been rehashed so many times that we all know about it (c.f. Slashdot) but I still think it represents the best way for the best 'content' (we're talking about messageboards and online communication here) to float to the top.

In what way does the behaviour of 'real world' communities change when they are translated into online communities? Are there any useful analogies we can draw, perhaps by looking at human behaviour (e.g. threats and threat responses manifested by posture and tone of voice) and their equivalents in the online world?

What real advantages are there to online communities?

At the moment, anyone and everyone is anonymous on the Internet. What does this do to online communities? Is anonymity a blessing or a curse?

What can a community founder do to ensure the success of a community? What sort of role should the founder take at various stages in the community's development? A balance must be struck between too much control and laissez-faire (in other words - 'How should we moderate the community?')

Community stability and 'well-being' vs. freedom of expression. How do we deal with this? Are there any self-correcting mechanisms that will spontaneously arise out of well-structured systems - e.g. rating of posts? One idea I personally like is that all criticism must be 'constructive criticism.'

To what extent do private dialogues between community member(s) affect the stability and operation of the community? I've seen firsthand what can happen when a walled garden appears within a outwardly-looking healthy community - complete destruction. Again, this isn't a binary issue - not all issues can be discussed out in the open.

In the case of Generation Mars, the aim here is to create a pro-active community that will accept new ideas and be willing to take on board all ideas. This is completely opposite to traditional communities. A real difficulty will be ensuring the pro-activeness of the community, and that contributions from all age-ranges are equally recognised - this could not be more important than in such a stratified community as the space advocacy moment (i.e. 'young blood' vs. 'old NASA veterans/L5 members')

What sort of media should the community 'live' in? Messageboards provide a real structure to discussions with forums and threads, but lack the immediacy of mailing lists (which have their own merits). In my experience, real-time chat is ineffective at actually accomplishing anything, but I believe that a properly conducted and moderated chat, with a clear purpose (e.g. agenda, public Q&A) may be very productive.

Are permanent chat-rooms a good idea? Should they be logged? Is a permanent presence required (and if so, can a chat-room be online permanently or for only selected hours of the day?).

Should the community be restricted just to communication media as listed above, or should they be able to construct mini-homepages on the Generation Mars server? We'd all like to have good content on the server, but how should it be controlled? What would be deemed suitable?

Are websites such as Tripod and Geocities communities, in the truest sense of the word, or are they just 'community enablers'? What is a community? An argument can be made that they are simply web hosting providers. (NB: Tripod considers itself as a community enabler. I agree).

How do adverts and 'targeted announcements' interfere in online communities? Does the presence of adverts on the various free messageboards available on the internet (e.g. Vangenet, Insidetheweb) and mailing lists (e.g. Smartgroups, eGroups) discourage discussion?

Online polls - are they any use in gauging opinion? Perhaps they should not be anonymous - or perhaps they should be limited to community members who have achieved some sort of milestone - in number of posts, or work done.

A quote that I find very interesting, by Barry Kort, founder of Musenet:

"The way you get a community of practice is you start with a community of interest. You have people who have the common interest who get together around their common interest. If they get together on a regular basis and exchange information collaboratively, they become a community of practice. In order to become a community of practice, you have to practice, you have to be engaged on a regular basis.

It's not enough to have an interest in something, you have to practice your interest with other people who share it. Once a community of practice gets going, the community can become stronger by forming a covenant or a social contract, becoming a community of commitment. In a community of commitment, it's not just that you share an interest or you have a common purpose, but you're working to support each other and to support the goals and the mission of your group. And, you're doing this within an agreed upon structure of how you're going to do this.

A community of commitment that gets anywhere can become a center of excellence. One of the models that I look for in intentional communities is this progression. A community of interest forms around their interest, they become a community of practice. They form a commitment to become a community of commitment, and then they become experts, world-class experts around that subject. They then become a center of excellence purveying their expertise to the public at large."

Generation Mars as a community of interest, a community of practice (practice in what? Space advocacy/education?)

How do you make communities welcoming to 'newbies'? Successful communities will be constantly active and have a large amount of productive and informed discussion with in-jokes and in-references and the like. This is intimating to newbies - role models and guardians are required to introduce newbies and show them around.

A very thought-provoking quote about MUDs and online chat rooms:

"People at different places in the Net experience different degrees of lag. Those who are lagging the most may be effectively shut out of a group meeting or even a dialogue because of their inability to contribute to the discussion in a timely fashion. Their interests, then, may never be addressed unless the mediator takes care to structure and pace the discussion or to supplement onMUSE synchronous communication with asynchronous email. Likewise, it is easy for one or two individuals to dominate a meeting by virtue of typing skill, a fast, reliable connection and much to say.9

The fact that messages are typed and read, rather than spoken and heard, has several effects. Different people may have the communication edge in this environment than those who do in real life. For example, those who have difficulty expressing themselves or understanding others through speech may be more communicative online while those who have difficulty reading, composing and typing may be less so.

Typing and lag interact to affect the sequencing of messages, such that one frequently tends to be one or more turns behind in a dialogue, thus one makes statements that appear to have ignored the other party's most recent message, which was itself typed and entered prematurely in an attempt to compensate for lag. Experienced users are accustomed to this and other vagaries of the Net. Most learn not to take offense, but it can be a source of substantive misunderstanding and hard feelings."

In this case, messageboards and to a lesser extent mailing lists have a significant advantage (ignoring the immediacy of real time chat, that is).

8:32 PM | permalink | discuss

I'm currently in the unenviable position of having over 25 in book tokens, but knowing perfectly well that if I buy even one book, my productivity for this weekend will get shot to hell (not that it isn't already shot to hell). So I'm going to have to give a bit of thought to this...

9:40 AM | permalink | discuss

Wednesday, November 15

It's cold out there! Sometimes I wonder whether humans as well as birds should fly south for the winter...

Being cold is a very interesting subject. Much of it has to psychological factors - most people know that you can consciously stop yourself from shivering - or start it yourself. I'm not sure what's the coldest I've ever been, but something that does come close is when I went swimming (albeit briefly) in the splashpool of a mini-waterfall. This wasn't a planned event, no, we just got there and thought that it might be fun to go in. Of course, once I got into the water I had to make sure that I kept my mouth closed or else I'd be spewing a constant stream of expletives about the temperature - there were youngsters about, after all.

Compared to other 'space' locations such as space itself and the Moon, Mars is a fairly balmly place. At times, the surface temperature can be over 20C at the equator in summer, and then drop to maybe -100C at night; the average temperature is -48C and the temperature differential can be 100C over a matter of mere hours. [I presume that there is also a nasty temperature differential between the Martian ground and air, which is something I have to look up one of these days]

Anyway, the fact is, Mars is really only as cold as the more frosty parts of the North Pole and Siberia - it's a temperature that we can cope with. Temperature is not the problem, as we well know. The pressure is the problem. Mars' atmosphere is about 0.8% of that of Earth's, so anyone going out onto the surface will need a fairly good pressure suit to prevent blood vessels from rupturing and so on.

If you look at space suits these days, they've hardly changed in 40 years - the space suits worn on the Moon look pretty much the same as those worn by shuttle astronauts on spacewalks. That's all very well and good, because they do their job, except they are not particularly flexible at all and they wear out after a while on exposure to dust. The fact is, if humans go to Mars, we'll need a completely new type of space suit. Moonwalkers found that after a few trips outside, their suits would begin to gum up as the dust inflitrated their suit joints - any more trips and the entire thing would be unuseable. This is clearly not an option for a Mars mission which could last from anywhere between a month to 18 months.

So. The new idea is that we'll have a skin-tight pressure suit that will maintain pressure, be flexible and allow complete freedom of movement while have no gum-uppable joints. Easier said than done. I don't really know how this pressure suit will work, but I heard that you have to be absolutely sure that it's skin tight or else bubbles will form and you'll be in big trouble. Naturally, such a thin pressure suit will offer no protection against the cold - so you just go and put a coat on, or maybe some coveralls. A parka might do well. It'd definitely be a sight.

11:50 AM | permalink | discuss

At one naive point in my life, I actually thought that Red Planet might be a good, relatively scientific Mars movie. As usual, the joint forces of Hollywood and Ignorance have conspired to thwart me again.

Let me first say that I don't expect and I don't want any space movie to be completely scientifically rigorous. I had good fun watching Armageddon despite some of its shocking science ("We're maxed out at 44,000 mph!" - since, of course, you do have wind resistance in space), simply due to the fact that it didn't take itself seriously (and was fun). However, not even Armageddon made mistakes of the hair-wrenching level of Red Planet - and I haven't even seen Red Planet yet!

A scientist in the movie claims that the bases of DNA are A, T, G and P. How we all laughed in Mission to Mars when an astronaut said, "That looks like human DNA" after looking at a few dozen bases out of the several billion in the human genome, but any teenager doing biology (well, most teenagers) could tell you that there is no base such as 'P'. And of course there are nematode worms with feet scurrying about the surface of Mars. Interesting, that, since nematode worms don't have feet and are microscopic. I'll let this article by Seth Shostak summarise the rest of the faults.

In the face of such terrible Mars media, I have made myself a new resolution. My next short story (which I will finish) will be one of the most scientifically rigorous yet compelling tales about Mars that you've ever read. This time, I mean it, because I can already feel the true worthiness of this story seeping out of my head. Expect something within the next few months.

Speaking of Mars, as I always do, the Generation Mars website is coming along quite nicely. I've decided that enough of the framework is finished so that I can start taking submissions from the interested public, so if you have a look over there at the educational resources index and see an article that isn't online and feel like doing a bit of research, let me know.

My new Physiology Of Organisms lecturer announced to us that he'd performed his first cardiovascular research experiment the day before, and conclusively shown that people don't die of broken hearts. Apparently, he took two snails that 'looked like they were in love', then removed the heart of one of the snails and placed it in solution, where it still functioned properly. The other snail did not die, and when its heart as well was removed, the heart functioned as normal. Thusly, snails do not die of broken hearts.

12:42 AM | permalink | discuss

Monday, November 13

Time for a bit of traditional links and commentary, I think.

Evolution dropped in Ontario schools. Will the madness never end? As I've stressed many times, I have no objection to religious beliefs, but there is no call for forcing them on others. To pretend that 'evolution doesn't happen' is akin to thinking that cars, computers and planes run on magic. For once, I'm glad that I live in the United Kingdom, the true birthplace of evolution - try asking people here whether they believe in creationism and they'll probably laugh in your face. Evolution is an integral part of the school curriculum here, as it should be around the world.

The thing is, biologists and scientists in general aren't averse to opposition to their views - we'd never progress scientifically if there was no controversy or debate about theories, established or not. However, the only opposition to evolution has come from - no prizes for guessing - Christian fundamentalists/creationists. 'Nuff said. I shall not discuss this topic further. The Ottawa Citizen explains the whole story succintly in its leader article.

Wondering what all this nonsense about the Higgs Boson is about (explained in the media as some mystical particle that 'gives things mass')? Look no further than the Waldegrave Higgs Challenge, where in 1993, the then UK Science Minister, William Waldegrave, issued a challence to physicists to answer the questions 'What is the Higgs boson, and why do we want to find it?' on one side of a single sheet of paper. Some of the winners are excellently written and I have to say that I have an increased appreciation of exactly why the discovery of the Higgs Boson is such a big deal.

10:15 PM | permalink | discuss

Sunday, November 12

A few thoughts about good lecturers. Seeing as my presentation at TED11 is creeping closer and closer, and I have discovered that I'll be presenting after the Director of the Field Museum, John McCarter (why, that'll be an easy act to follow, of course!), I'm beginning to put some serious thought to what I should talk about. And not just that, but how I should say it.

Now, being at Cambridge, you'd think I'd be able to learn from some of the best, which is partly true. I've been lucky enough to listen to two of the best speakers I've ever seen in my life, Prof. Steve Jones and Dr. Mike Mason. Steve Jones gave a very informal, easy-going, conversational lecture filled with quick jokes and highly interesting pieces of information - the perfect mix, as far as I'm concerned. Mike Mason just exudes a real enthusiasm for his topic and for lecturing - just by the way he speaks and uses gestures to emphasise his words has given him a reputation among the Natscis (Natural Scientists) for being one of the best lecturers. That, and his frequent asides such as how cyclists use erythropoetin to stimulate red blood cell growth, so that they have more haemoglobin to carry oxygen, which means that they can (supposedly) cycle faster and eventually die at a shockingly early age from heart attacks. Just remember kids - cheats never win.

[Digression: I was told that hand gestures during presentations are a sign of the speaker not being able to express him or herself through words alone. I'd argue that that's probably true in some circumstances (okay, it's definitely true in some circumstances) but wildly false in others.]

That doesn't mean that all lecturers here are great. I've had my fair share of sleep-inducing lecturers who'll put up slide after slide of incomprehensible data and drone on about the bloody relationship in haploidy/diploidy size-ratios in algae and prehistoric plants. It's hard to really identify exactly why their lectures are so terrible - possibly because there are so many different reasons - but they do give a good lesson in How Not To Speak.

So, what will I do then? I doubt I can pull off the outward wisdom of Steve Jones, but I reckon I can fit in a few jokes. Enthusiasm about my topic? Well, that's a given (what is my topic? Hell, I don't even know what it is, exactly, myself!). Hand gestures? Why the hell not!

[By the way, if you have $300 to spare, you could always buy access to the TED webcast. Yes, it's a scandal, I know, but evidently there are people willing to pay.]

I was reminded by a friend that in a month's time, the university will be interviewing applicants for entry. Someone mentioned that he wanted to give a few tips to some interviewees from my school. I confessed that I didn't really see the point of this, and said that I didn't plan to give any real advice to interviewees.

Now, what's this! I hear you cry. Adrian, being nasty to potential interviewees?

Of course not. It's just that with Natural Sciences, there is no advice to give. You'll have about one minute of inconsequential chit-chat and then plunge into a 40 minute nightmare of thinking fast and thinking hard. The interviewers don't bother asking you about what you already know, because they're looking for intelligence, not memory. Giving advice to a Natural Science candidate is simply counterproductive. Although if I did have to give advice, I'd say - Relax. If you don't know something, say so. And just remember that everyone makes mistakes.

9:59 PM | permalink | discuss