Saturday, December 9

Rant time. Warner Brothers have threatened a 15 year old girl with legal action for holding the domain name www.harrypotterguide.co.uk because it is "likely to cause consumer confusion or dilution of intellectual property rights". And of course, they're more than willing to refund her handsomely for the site, to the tune of... 9.99.

To be honest, I don't know where to start on this issue - there's so much I could say. So I'll leave out the blatant bad PR that this move with generate, and get onto the meat of it. Exactly why is WB threatening a website that is, essentially, providing them with free publicity and free work? Surely this is completely counterproductive. In fact, shouldn't WB be grateful for volunteer-run sites like these? I would imagine that they'd benefit hugely if they co-operated with these sites, perhaps by supplying them with news and images about the upcoming movie.

The idea of affiliate sites to corporate concerns isn't particularly new; I know for a fact that the producers of Stargate are excellent in this respect, by inviting some of the leading fan website administrators to meet the actors and generally showing their appreciation. As long as a company isn't overly uptight about retaining ultimate control over their 'intellectual property rights' and can at least figure out a cost-benefit analysis of fan sites, it makes sense to encourage their proliferation and success.

And let's face it, in most cases, the best fan sites are far superior to 'official' sites - they're updated more regularly, they have better content, resources and community pages. All of this is provided for free; the fan sites get their money from advertising banners. Has it not occurred to companies that they could sponsor these sites for a pittance of what equivalent Internet publicity would cost (less than $100/month), and thus earn the webmasters' undying gratitude? Of course not. Control is the word.

Tying this in with my new pet theme of youth-run communities, I think that sponsored fan websites such as these would prove a wonderful jumping off point for not only beginner web designers, but also writers and artists; a sort of mentoring scheme, if you will. The companies get free work, the kids get the resources in order to learn and expand their abilities. Everyone is happy.

It's interesting to note that this sort of thing is already going on with other online communities such as the massively multiplayer games Everquest and Ultima Online. Both games have a select group of veteran players, or Guides, who are responsible for helping out newbies and players alike, keeping the peace, solving disputes, monitoring bugs and basically being community leaders. In return for spending dozens of hours a week doing this, they get (or used to get) a small thank-you, usually in the form of a free subscription to the game (worth perhaps $10 or $20 a month) and respect from the game maintainers and community.

It's clear that the effort they put into helping the game far outweighs their compensation, yet they don't mind, because they're having fun and they like the respect. This would be a classic case of 'corporate mentoring' if it weren't for the fact that the game maintainers are now taking away the privileges that the volunteers used to enjoy (e.g. the free subscription). Not only a bad PR move, but a bad move for the game. Many of the Guides are up in arms about this. I don't know what's happened very recently with this situation, but there's undoubtedly a lot of vitriol floating about.

So my bolted-together idea is that the corporate world - and the entire world - should not only appreciate the efforts of the millions of volunteers that put their time in for a love of what they do, but also support and sponsor their activites. What's more, including the youth in this umbrella scheme would give them some excellent experience in any number of fields and also harness their sheer creative energy. We're talking positive-sum here, and since when did the words 'positive-sum' ever mean anything bad?

On a lighter note, Tescos are employing ex-soldiers to guard their immensely valuable 600-acre plot of Christmas trees at an 'undisclosed location.' My favourite quote was:

A spokesman for the supermarket told BBC News Online: "Anyone who is thinking of rustling trees should beware. They will be rumbled."
The phrase 'rustling trees' just cracks me up every time I read it.

5:20 PM | permalink | discuss

Friday, December 8

Aside from the astronauts and pioneers you hear about in tales of space exploration, there are a great number of unsung heroes. During my research for some of the Mars probes articles I'm writing for Generation Mars, I found out that only hours before the launch of the Mars Pathfinder, the wiring for the surface weather station on the was damaged. Rather than give up, a member of the JPL team, Regina A. Alleruzzo, was flown in overnight to Cape Canaveral and managed to make the repair to the wiring in almost impossible time conditions. If I was an American, I'd be justly proud of my space programme, but then, I'm not.

Usually when the days are so short at this time of year, I contract a form of seasonal lethargy, if not quite depression - I can't stand getting up when it's still dark (hence the reason why I always open part of my curtains while I'm sleeping, so the sunrise can wake me up). Fortunately, this hasn't happened this year since for the past week as I haven't had to wake up while it's dark - this tends to be a result of getting up at midday (as I did today). I think the reason behind all of this is because I've identified exactly what makes Cambridge what it is - Cambridge does everything in excess. Everything.

Take, for instance, last night. After doing a few hours of work until 10PM, I decided to slope off downstairs to the traditional meeting room where we normally play downloaded arcade games. I wasn't too surprised to find several other people in the same condition already there before me, so much carousing and abuse and four-player Bomberman (Mmhey!) ensued. After three and a half hours of this, at 1:30AM, I decided to call it a day and get some sleep.

Only until the next day (today) did I find out that people stayed until 4:30AM, and that was only because the owner of the room made a tactical yawn and commented, 'I feel a bit tired.' Anyway, today I got up completely refreshed and energised at 12:10PM and came to the quick conclusion that another hour of Micro Machines was called for. That done, it was 1:10PM and there was only three hours left of daylight (spent walking, dancing and singing around Cambridge - it was a nice day and the spirit of Frank Sinatra infected us all). As I'm sure you'll agree, it was a day well spent.

An interesting story about how animals 'regulate' their own numbers by population density - clearly, squirrels are smarter than I'd given them credit for.

Is it me, or is the premise of a $300 million Terminator 3 movie, with a female 'T-1G' that can 'morph into pure energy' and is literally indestructible just a little excessive?

5:09 PM | permalink | discuss

Wednesday, December 6

Last night, after I'd finished a few hours work on the Generation Mars website, I was feeling suitably pleased with myself and started to do the one thing I'd been looking forward to all that day - making popcorn.

So imagine the sequence of emotions that I experienced when I discovered that my bag on raw popcorn (usually sitting next to the mirror, above the popcorn machine) had gone. Puzzlement. Bewilderment. As I frantically searched around the room in increasingly unlikely places (sink, under the bed, behind computer monitor, inside desk drawers), these emotions turned darker into shock, anger and steely resolve - clearly, someone had removed my popcorn, and it wasn't me.

Either that, or I finished all of it, but I prefer to think that someone took it (actually, I think someone did it as a practical joke, but I can't be sure).

I'm making good, steady progress on the Generation Mars website now; I finish and revamp somewhere in the region of four articles a day now in both HTML and PDF format; if I keep it up for a couple more weeks, it'll all be finished. And that's not to say that I spend all day working on it; the greater proportion of my day is spent lounging around in my friends' rooms sleeping on the floor, playing emulations of arcade games and arguing about everything and anything over Hall lunches and dinners (usually waving about a piece of meat stuck on the end of a fork to emphasise a point).

The Guardian is currently running a debate and a spread of features about whether we should have a republic in the UK. I'm personally against the monarchy, on the basis that its current members are hardly perfect role models for the society (and a whole raft of other reasons which I'm sure are already familiar to you all, such as my pathological hate of Prince Charles and all his evil works). However, I've resigned myself to the fact that, by and large, public opinion is with them, and in any case if the monarchy were to be abolished, it would hardly happen overnight. What the hell, at least they're good entertainment.

Do you see me as someone who might fit into Stanford University well? Some of my friends believe I would, for my PhD. Strange.

11:37 PM | permalink | discuss

Tuesday, December 5

Driving back from the first trebuchet building session, we wondered what we'd build after it was finished. There were three criteria.

"It has to be destructive. It has to be made out of lots of big pieces of wood, and it has to have a load of big fuck-off metal bolts."
Which pretty much sums up what our treb is going to be.

We met up at about 7:30 at Rich's house to then go to B&Q to pick up some supplies. "This should be easy," I said as we were walking into the store, brandishing my list of things to buy. "We need some one by two inch pieces, eight foot long." Then we stopped in our tracks when we saw that, curse those pen-pushers at city hall, they'd changed everything to metric! Cue a lot of hasty mental calculation and shrugs that were almost French-like in their expressiveness - one [shrug] might mean 'Ah well, two inches, 44 millimetres, it's all NASA to me,' and another [shrug] could be 'We don't really need it eight foot long, do we?'

Having spent far too much time choosing some wood, we found ourselves with about ten minutes left before closing to buy everything else (which we didn't). After pointing and laughing at the frankly pathetic selections of metal threaded rods, we then only have five minutes to sprint around in a mad supermarket-sweep rush, shovelling in handfuls of bolts and muttering profanities about their lack of nuts.

(Note: It has not escaped my attention that some readers might derive amusement from the use of the words 'rod', 'x foot long' and 'nuts' in the above paragraphs. [shrug])

This was perhaps the easiest part of the night - we then had to put it all together. It turned out that we made our first error with our third piece of wood because we were looking at the wrong picture on the plans. More [shrugs] and the common decision was 'What the hell, we weren't going to follow the plans that strictly anyway.' And so we didn't, perhaps because we realised that unlike the designer of the plans, we hadn't been working with wood for the better part of our lives - but we did know how to use reassuringly powerful drills and jigsaws.

So to our utmost surprise, we did actually manage to get over half of it done in just a couple of hours. Sure, it doesn't look perfect and it's not going to win any aethestic prizes (but would any trebuchet?), but what the hell, [shrug].

There should be some pictures online of the trebuchet here, someday...

Incredibly, I managed to get some real, productive work done today. This is rendered even more incredible when you consider the fact that yesterday I spent a couple of hours playing on emulations of Golden Axe and Metal Slug on a friend's computer. [Loud voice] Hah, and we finished Metal Slug first time, in only half an hour! [Small voice] Okay, we did use up about 60 credits, but, uh... ah, what the hell, there's no excuse.

5:11 PM | permalink | discuss

Monday, December 4

Sorry - can't talk - busy making huge medieval engine of destruction, also known as a trebuchet. This is the trebuchet (or 'treb' as it's affectionately known to us) we're building.

Just as filler material, here's an email I wrote in a space vs. everything else debate:

I don't feel like I have to defend the space programme, for two reasons. One, the UK doesn't have one. Two, this is just the same old argument as before. Space research does a hell of a lot more good than military spending or any other useless government institution. People are *interested* in space research. People are interested in seeing a man on the Moon or on
Mars. It means something to them, it touches something in the heart. Space isn't just some bottomless hole that we shovel money into - it helps satiate our thirst for exploration and adventure.

Why bother climbing Everest? Why bother trying to find out if the Higgs boson exists? They don't really *matter*, do they?

We all have our drives and our interests. It wouldn't be fair to deny them to people. Apart from the fact that cancelling the space programme would pretty much preclude any major advances in satellite tech or other related research, it would also sorely disappoint those who are interested in it. It'd be like cancelling Arts Council funding, because it doesn't do any good.

What's the point of *living* if you can't fulfil your goals or dreams, no matter how irrelevant or strange they might seem to others? Some people have the dream to go into space, to walk on another planet. They're no different to the dreams of people wanting to be actors or footballers - in fact, I think they're far more noble.

There will always be problems on Earth and whenever we solve one, two more will pop up. If we just worried about the problems all the time, I fear we'd all commit suicide. Sometimes we need to have aspirations to look past the problems and hope for something better.

I know that there are hundreds of teenagers and children who are inspired by space, because I've met them. There are probably hundreds of thousands out there, across the world. To many kids, there aren't many more exciting things than flying in space and being an astronaut.

At once, space is no different from any other interest, but also completely unique. It offers so much potential - you need only look on the Internet to see what people have in mind for space. If we left the development of space until we solved everything on Earth, we'd never get off this planet.

It doesn't have to be space vs. humanitarian causes, and it shouldn't be. If anything, it should be the military vs. humanitarian causes.

7:18 PM | permalink | discuss

Sunday, December 3

I feel like I'm finally unwinding from all the intensity and work that is full term at Cambridge. Yesterday was probably the most enjoyable and relaxing day I've had so far - getting up at about 11AM feeling rested, then helping a few friends move out by carrying their stuff to their cars. After that, lunch and a leisurely stroll around Cambridge talking about the merits of American and European universities and university fees in general while the sun was shining down brightly.

I then remarked that I didn't feel as if I'd been fully subsumed into the global American consciousness since I'd never been to Starbucks before, so a large caramel coffee was called for while watching the river Cam go by. To round the whole day off, we played football on Trinity College Backs for a couple of hours until it got so dark that we were in danger of kicking the ball into the river. Again.

Someone said, "This is something we'll tell our kids about - we played football on Trinity Backs until we couldn't see the ball." And it's true. We will.

10:52 PM | permalink | discuss