Friday, November 24

I had my final biology practical lab class today - in fact, I could have had it on Wednesday. It turned out that the practical I'd turned up to today was optional, but being good students (hah!) my bench partners and I decided to stay for the first part to see if it was worth attending. 90 minutes later, we were all on the verge of falling asleep and mutinously considering joining those who'd already walked out of the practical (it wasn't really a practical, more of a lecture).

Thankfully, it ended for lunch soon after and the lecturer said blithely, 'You know, I'm very glad you all turned up, I was only expected five or ten people,' at which point we realised the enormity of our mistake in attending. He continued 'We'll have some cookies outside at two o' clock for those of who you decide to come back.' Once that was said, we strode out to lunch in ill-grace muttering things such as 'Nice try, boyo - but I prefer my bed to cookies,' and wondering whether there'd still be table free at the pub.

A while back, I received a draft copy of British Telecom's 1999 Technology Timeline, which is always worth a good read. Strictly, I was told not to pass it around, but it's been about 18 months since I received it and the part I'm going to quote here wasn't even written by them. BT's Technology Timeline is written by their resident Futurologist, Ian Pearson, and offers an interesting view into what they think will happen in the future. Most interesting and thought-provoking is their 'Wildcard' list of world-shaping events that could happen literally anytime. So, without further ado:

Addendum: wild cards (that could happen at almost any time)

(Reproduced with kind permission from John Petersen, The Arlington Institute)

AIDS virus (or similarly deadly disease) mutates and becomes transmittable by air
Another Chernobyl
Asteroid hits Earth
Bugs resistant to all known antibiotics
Civil war between Soviet states goes nuclear
Civil war in the US: the paradigm war goes kinetic
Climatic instability, turn for the worst
Collapse of the sperm count
Collapse of the United Nations
Collapse of world's fisheries
Computer/chip/operating system maker blackmails country or world
Computers/robots think like humans
Encryption invalidated
End of intergenerational solidarity
End of the nation state
Energy revolution
Extraordinary US west coast natural disaster
Faster than light travel
First unambiguous contact with extraterrestrial life - the arrival of ETs
Foetal sex selection becomes the norm
Fuel cells replace internal combustion engines
Global electromagnetic communications disrupted for foreseeable future
Global financial revolution
Global food shortage
Growth of religious environmentalism .
Gulf or Jet Stream shifts location permanently
Hackers blackmail federal feserve
Health and medical breakthrough
Human cloning perfected, human genetic engineering arrives
Human mutation
Humans access net directly, become an integral part of global information system
Ice cap breaks up -- Oceans rise one hundred feet
Inner cities arm and revolt
International financial collapse
Large-scale lengthy disruption of national electrical supply
Life expectancy approaches 100
Long term side effects of medication discovered
Loss of intellectual property rights
Major break in Alaskan pipeline - significant ecological damage
Major chaos in Africa
Major genetic engineering accident
Major information systems disruption
Major technology or science research accident
Major US military unit mutinies - allies with militia movement
Mass migrations
Nanotechnology takes off
New age attitudes blossom with the Millennium
No-carbon economy worldwide
Nuclear terrorist attack on United States or Europe
Return of the Messiah
Rise of an American dictator
Rules change: economic and/or environmental "war criminals" are prosecuted
Second World nation demonstrates development of nanotech weapons
Self-aware machine intelligence
Social breakdown in US or Europe
Stock market crash
Sweeping medical breakthrough is perfected
Terrorism rises beyond capability of government systems
Terrorists go biological
Third World exodus
Time travel invented
US economy fails or collapse of the dollar
Virtual reality and holography move information instead of people
Viruses become immune to all known treatments
Whole generation unable to effectively read, write, think, and work
Worldwide epidemic

(Addendum: I just realised that all of this is on the web, here.)

6:22 PM | permalink | discuss

Thursday, November 23

Televised debates between the three major parties in the UK - an idea whose time has come. Although I honestly can't believe the gall of the Tories to "raise questions over whether the Liberal Democrats should be included."

Heavens Above - a website that can calculate the positions of stars, space stations, spacecraft, satellites, planets and pretty much everything based on your location. And in a turn-up for the books, you don't need to know your latitude and longitude, just a town (it didn't have my exact town, but it did have several that are only one or two kilometres away). It'd be even better if it stopped raining here.

5:59 PM | permalink | discuss

Wednesday, November 22

The Generation Mars community is now finally online and active! Check it out (even though no-one is actually there yet).

8:12 PM | permalink | discuss

I've become a lot more fond of practical labwork in my biology classes these days. Back in the days of yore (about half a year ago), a practical class in school meant putting a beaker of liquid A into a burette and sitting there for about two hours doing mind-numbing titrations. Or carrying out biology experiments that, due to everyone else messing about, consistently got inconclusive class average results.

So I was quite pleased to find out that we could use highly expensive equipment that saved a hell of a lot of time (Gilson pipettes and spectrophotometers) and handle some shockingly dangerous chemicals in Cambridge. In a practical I had last week, the lecturer blithely told us 'don't worry if you get any cyanide on your skin - you should wash it off just in case, but there probably won't be any permanent damage.' Then there was the time when we were hooked to computers using ECGs and apparently there was a fibre-optic interface 'so that the computer won't get damaged if you're electrocuted.'

Mind you, that doesn't really compare to the wonderful anoxia experiment where it's apparently very easy for students to become unconscious if they're not careful.

5:25 PM | permalink | discuss

Tuesday, November 21

Related to my last post is my idea of talented web designers (yes, that means you, webloggers!) doing something similar to (some) lawyers in doing pro-bono work for charity. We all know of the millions of horribly designed charity and good-causes webpages out there - it'd be great for good webdesigners to help them out. Furthermore, a pro-bono webdesign program would be perfect for designers wanting to get a good reputation and CV if they haven't had previous Internet-related employment. This is a little like the 'Cool Site in a Day' competition run at a web conference a while back (if anyone knows the link, I'd appreciate it), but massively expanded.

We're not talking about some kind of simple graphical makeover - perhaps webdesigners could put time in to creating a real cutting-edge community site that would serve as a nexus for, e.g., abused women. The webdesign community could get real kudos for a responsible project like that, and everyone - the designers, the users of the site - would benefit. After all, why is it that the most technically advanced and streamlined sites are used for selling things, weblogs or discussions about the Internet instead of helping people?

10:29 PM | permalink | discuss

I hate educational websites.

Or rather, I hate government run educational website, like the EC's Netd@ys Europe 2000 project. I'm not going to pass judgement over their use of @ in the title (no doubt formulated by some overpaid marketing agency which conducted focus groups), but to me, it's a prime example of yet another government/big-business project that is depressingly uninspiring and unoriginal.

How did I hear about Netd@ys? It was from an email I was sent, announcing a joint ESA-Netd@ys online chat with 15 space scientists on Friday. This is apparently "a practical example of imaginative use of the new media, the Internet in particular, as a teaching, learning and discovery resource. "Ask a Space Expert @ Netd@ys" is a pioneer project based on genuine student-expert partnership."

Imaginitive use of the new media? Don't make me laugh. NASA has been conducting online chats every week for years, and it has the decency not to pretend that they're anything special. So-called 'initiatives' like these only serve to further convince me that unpaid volunteers could put together a vastly superior website and project to Netd@ys in a fraction of the time and money. They could do this because by definition, they're dedicated and motivated.

There are literally hundreds if not thousands of talented and highly skilled youths in Europe who would give their right arm to take an active role in organising Netd@ys - not simply be on some token 'youth committee' that is only formed to satiate the broadsheet newspapers (c.f. the Millennium Dome 'Youth Committee', whose power can be measured on a scale comparable to that of the Queen in Australia).

Sigh. How much is Netd@ys being funded? Hundreds of thousands of euros? Millions? It really does make me sick.

And just who the hell designed this travesty of a 'fun' page?

5:48 PM | permalink | discuss

Monday, November 20

There's a wonderful 'surplus-stock' bookshop about three minutes away from where I live called Galloway and Porter. This bookshop is perhaps the most incredible one I've seen; ever since I found a veritable gold mine of quality hardback SF there for less than 5 each, I've been going there about twice a week just in case they have something new in.

Not only that, but they have a continual supply of the excellent National Geographic: Mars books, in near-perfect condition, at 5 each (25 RRP). When I first saw this, I nearly dropped to my knees in incredulity, and of course snapped up a copy to give away as a prize for a small competition I was holding for the class I was responsible for as a prefect. Since then, it's been a long standing desire of mine to buy every single copy they have and give them away as prizes for Generation Mars. Unfortunately, since our funding won't be arriving for a week or two (and the rest will hopefully follow in a month's time), I haven't been able to buy it on the competition account.

So while I've been waiting for this funding to arrive, I've been watching their supplies of the book slowly dwindle away, getting more and more upset in the process. Today, I told myself - 'Enough is enough. There is a time to draw a line against the thieves who are buying my god-given Mars books!' and I marched in there (after buying another packet of popcorn from the shop across the road - I do have priorities), slapped the credit card down on the table and demanded seven copies of their finest Mars book.

After which I was told that they were getting a new shipment in on Wednesday and that I needn't have bothered. Ah well, it doesn't bother me since I can reclaim the money off the GenMars account and now I can rest assured that my precious books are in safe keeping (yess... they are preciousss to me...).

4:44 PM | permalink | discuss

Sunday, November 19

More links about online community building, all to do with Amy Jo Kim, the author of Community Building on the Web and also the person running the Designing Online Communities course at Stanford.

An interview with Amy Jo Kim - this has a particularly business-orientated slant on online communities which seems a little out of sorts with her later comments.

The companion website for Community Building on the Web - the book has had received some great reviews and appears still to be relatively up to date so I think I'll try and get a copy (19 isn't cheap though...)

An online forum featuring Amy Jo Kim (a few months old) - some great reading here, including a few points that are very interesting [thanks to Jen for all of these links!]

Something that I find particularly interesting is the idea of reputation and trust matrices in online communities, which all have the ultimate goal of weeding out the dross in discussions. Various websites handle this different - we all know Slashdot's rating system (which has its ups and downs, to put it lightly) and Epinion's Web of Trust (which seems to work a little better - but if I'm a new user, how can I compare the trustworthiness of different users? Just by numercial analysis?). The Well has no reputation system and merely relies on the 'bozofilter' which is (I think) essentially a killfile that will filter out any posts made by people who you don't like.

But first, let's think about how we judge reputation in the 'real world'. When you first encounter a new group, you don't know anyone but within the space of a few days or hours, you'll have come up with a pretty rock-solid index of reputations for each person (according to your opinion, of course). This will be determined in two ways - by your own interactions with each person, and by observing other interpersonal interactions. You don't assign each person a number, but you do think 'Well, Katie seems to know what's she's talking about when the subject of horses comes up.'

Why doesn't this work on the web? There are many reasons, to my mind. First off is the sheer number of people in some communities. Secondly, the fact that communication is much slower than in real life. Thirdly, there is always a constant flux (the size of which depends on the community in question) of people entering and leaving.

So it could be said that reputation systems and trust matrices are good for giving newbies an approximation of the reputation of each person in the community, but this reputation will merely be an average of what the entire community thinks - or even worse, a select group of 'old hands'. As I said, an approximation.

The fact is, the real reason we have reputation systems and so on is that it's so damned difficult to ignore annoying/clueless people on the web. In real life, you just avoid them or don't talk to them. On the Internet, their posts get in your way. Which brings me to the Well's bozofilter, which is probably the best solution. I hate to think of what would happen if a reputation system was introduced into the Well - a lot of argument and acrimony, to be sure.

People should be allowed to make up their own minds about who to listen to - they might be influenced by other people's opinions, but when I think about it, I don't really like the idea of a global reputation system that seems to pronounce definitive judgement based on the 'will of the people' on each person. This also suits me fine since I don't know of any messageboard systems that incorporate a reputation system I like (not even the ones you pay for) and I'm not a programmer. But I fear that in some cases the Generation Mars forums will have to be moderated - in moderation, of course.

OK. My second point is that, from reading what Amy Jo Kim has had to say, Community Guidelines and Backstory are extremely important things. Community Guidelines that each user has to read and agree to before joining the community are basically common-sense, but they also instill a sense of responsibility and respect for each other - something that is as lacking in real life as on the web. I plan to use an adapted version of the Well's guidelines for Generation Mars.

Backstory is the interesting story that communities tell to new members - for example, about how they joined, or what they're working on. A good example of a community with a good backstory is the Culture list I'm on - whenever someone joins, they'll invariably be greeted by several members and introduced to the group. It helps make people feel included and at home.

Anyway, let me know what you think about all of this in the discuss feature.

What's happened to me recently? I woke up this morning to an eerie silence. I initially passed this off to the fact that my ears were probably still ringing after going out clubbing last night, and decided that there was nothing amiss. I then wandered over to the computer to find that it wasn't making any noise (I left it on overnight - turned off the monitor though) and then started to get extremely worried. Nothing happened when I tried to turn it on. I closed my eyes, wondering how and why I had been punished in this way. Was it possibly a lightening strike?

Giving up on the computer, I went over to my mobile phone to see if that'd charged up. It hadn't. In fact, nothing electrical in the room was working at all, not even the lights. At this point, I realised that I'd probably have to get changed now and walk all the way to the Porter's Lodge (2 minutes!) to sort it out.

To cut a short story even shorter, it turned out that some electrical fuse/switch/doohickey (I forget what the technical term was) was on. Or off. Anyway, it's all sorted out and it's probably for the best since I'd have never gotten changed otherwise.

11:39 AM | permalink | discuss