Saturday, January 13

Just got back to my room in Cambridge - expect some photos of my room online soon, and my webcam has already been hooked up after a long two month absence.

Listening to: Legion of Green Men (Plus 8) - Synaptic Response

8:47 PM | permalink | discuss

Friday, January 12

We have all the time in the world
The thing is, there isn't much in the world to be had. Ever since I realised, over a number of months, that in order to get anything done right requires a hell of a lot of time, I've been consciously or unconsciously making decisions to avoid doing or getting involved in things that I find cool. Computer games, youth projects... it's a shame, but there you go.

I mentioned page annotation/discussion software a while back - here's a list of the ones that are currently available. The only viable option is Thirdvoice, which sadly isn't that well executed.

The main problem that plagues Thirdvoice is that you get overwhelmed by all the irrelevant junk. Thirdvoice operates by opening up a companion sidebar window next to you browser. This window displays discussion topics made by people who accessed the same page you're looking it, meaning that you can discuss - and essentially annotate - any static page on the Internet. Surely this is a good thing, you think.

Yes. In theory. As we all know, roughly 90% of the discussion that takes place on the web is, let's say, one bit short of a byte (yes, I know, 7 bit, har har har, but that's not what I meant). It's crap. And so, 90% of the discussions on Thirdvoice are crap as well. This wouldn't be so crippling if you could set Thirdvoice just to display discussions started by particular members, or even better, closed groups of people, and screen out everything else. Of course, Thirdvoice doesn't do this. It nearly does - which is what makes it so infuriating - by allowing you to create closed groups of users which can have their own pricate discussions cut off from everyone else, but it does not allow you to get rid of everyone else's messages whenever you open the Thirdvoice sidebar.

Yes, there are work-arounds. It's possible to open up a 'Group Viewer' so you just see discussions from your own closed groups. It's possible to partially filter and screen messages. They work, but they take you away from the immediacy that the sidebar could, but doesn't, offer - an instant noteboard filled by messages from members of your presumably intelligent and informed closed group - and nothing else.

And so the Thirdvoice option on my browser now languishes unused, a perfectly good application that is rendered unuseable by the simplest of errors.

8:35 PM | permalink | discuss

Thursday, January 11

What is my cunning plan for Generation Mars? At this point, I reluctantly have to admit that we aren't likely to get the money we require to do the competition properly if we rely on commercial sponsors. I simply don't have the time or the contacts to make the fundraising work that way - maybe if there were more people helping the effort it would be possible, but that's just the way it is.

So, in a few days I'm going to kick off a new fundraising project that I've been mulling over for quite a while, something that I rather wouldn't have had to rely on now. Simply speaking, it's online donations.

I've always felt that the method of online donations has unimaginable promise and with the success of Blogger in raising over $10,000 within a matter of days, I'm convinced that this avenue is worth pursuing for Generation Mars. I'm not going to say that I don't expect us to raise as much money because these things are unpredictable and I certainly won't be asking people to donate money for nothing - if you give a donor something in return, it softens the pain of parting with your cash. Exactly what it is we'll be giving them in return is something I have to think about - maybe a copy of the GenMars CD, maybe the poster. Maybe both. Really depends on my mood when the thing is launched.

How much money do we have to raise? Originally, I thought something like 5000 would be enough, but then I realised that of course it wouldn't be. The total amount I'm hoping to achieve with online donations via Paypal to an account in America (it has to be in America due to Paypal's regulations) is 10,000. A large amount, yes, and it comes to 1000 people donating $15 or $20 each if we want to cover postage and packaging costs as well.

I really do think it's possible, if the fundraising effort is launched properly and we get the right sort of atmosphere going. I know for a fact that people are willing to donate money since I've already had a few enquiries - not large sums, just around 10 or 20. I also know that there will be people who want to donate larger sums.

It's a gamble but I think that directing my energies into an online donation scheme as opposed to traditional fundraising is the right way to go. What the hell. Generation Mars is supposed to be an innovative, original and ground-breaking new project (talk about using three words where one will do) - it may as well break some new ground with fundraising.

11:39 PM | permalink | discuss

To an untrained observer, it would have appeared that I spent nearly an hour walking around the house talking to myself loudly. Not an unusual occurrence, you might think to yourself as you adjusted your telescope, for someone like Adrian, but what's he saying? Of course, I'm practicising my TED presentation! Having hit upon the genius idea of formulating the presentation without writing much down at all (thus negating the requirement to memorise everything), it's coming along well although I tend to start laughing at random intervals.

Interesting GenMars development - Orion Publishing have expressed an interest in sponsoring us. The more the merrier... 'course, we still need several thousand quid, and I don't think that they're realistically going to supply all of that. But I have a cunning plan...

Aside: reading my Evolution and Behaviour notes, I've started to wonder how the hell the lecturer managed to fit 16 sides of notes in a one hour lecture. Based on a conservative 350 words per page and that the lecture is roughly 50 minutes long, this means that he's speaking at 112 words per minute without any interruptions. The strange thing is, I do recall him reciting all the lecture notes and more, so what they say must be true - time travel is possible, and it happens in the lecture theatres of Cambridge University (being very tired and falling asleep somehow aids this process, perhaps through Sheldrake's morphic resonance theories. Or something like that).

4:22 PM | permalink | discuss

Wednesday, January 10

In order to get the best possible experience out of the lunar eclipse last night, I suited up fully with torch, digital camera, spare batteries and minidisc playing appropriately otherworldly music by Christopher Franke, and loped outside to West Kirby hill to find a good skywatching spot.

This, unfortunately, wasn't too easy. The hill isn't that large, and although it's fairly well covered by trees, in most places you'll always be able to see some sign of civilisation. So for a while I stayed at one spot with the minimum of streetlights shining over the treetops and watched the show.

It was, I have to admit, pretty impressive - the most so when there was only a tiny sliver of light visible at the very top of the Moon. I tried taking a few photos but the camera simply couldn't hack the low light conditions; to be honest, you'd need a pretty good camera with a telephoto lens and the proper film to get a good exposure.

Slightly disappointed by my lack of photographic success, I went walking in search of a better vantage point (i.e. one without streetlights). Luckily, I knew the paths well so I was able to find my way without getting lost or falling over (with the help of my torch, I'll admit). So when I finally got to what was probably the best place for miles to view the lunar eclipse, I wasn't surprised to see a couple already huddled together on the base of statue there.

Ignoring them with a slight pang of envy, I set up camp on a bench away from there and lay back as the music got to the good part - there's no doubt about it, good music enhances the experience immeasureably. Next time: Radiohead during the Perseids in summer.

At this point it was about 8:40 PM, twenty minutes past the midpoint of the eclipse, and I'd been out for well over an hour. Gathering up my stuff, I set out for home only mildly irritated by the fact that the minidisc player was repeating a Savage Garden song for the third time; however, my hands having frozen into solid blocks of ice, I couldn't do much about it (this was due to my stunningly lack of foresight with regards to gloves, and the benefits thereof).

All in all, a good experience, not so much for the lunar eclipse (I never did see it go blood red - clearly I need to get out to the countryside to get rid of all this light pollution and haze), but for getting outside and doing a bit of stargazing to music. I'd recommend it to anyone.

Going back to Cambridge in three days gives me a strange mixture of anticipation and worry.

6:35 PM | permalink | discuss

An unnamed, unknown technology that is set to completely change the world, if you believe the people in the report - which I do, conditionally, seeing as Dean Kamen is a highly skilled and proven inventor.

This sort of stuff scares me in that there's something out there, already developed, that will potentially change society but I won't know about it for a year. It's a wildcard and as such, could upset any number of people and projects.

Top guesses I've heard so far is that IT stands for Individual Transportation - maybe a personal flyer or hoverboard? Who knows...

12:46 AM | permalink | discuss

Tuesday, January 9

We get it almost every night
When the moon is big and bright
It's a supernatural delight
Everybody's dancing in the moonlight
I've been in a particularly good mood this morning ever since it struck me exactly what I wanted to speak in my presentation for TED11; cue lots of dancing around, finger-clicking, 'yeahs' and singing along to music very loud, and some silly photos.

I've always believed that the people who have the most fun dancing at clubs are those who really don't give a damn what other people think. These people aren't necessarily very good at dancing - sometimes it's completely the opposite - but who gives a damn? As the saying goes, 'Always dance as if no-one was watching.' This is something I'd always like to do except for the fact that I might end up injuring someone if I followed that wholeheartedly.

Lunar eclipse tonight - I urge all readers in Europe, Asia and Africa to try and catch a glimpse of it. Apparently the best time to see it in the UK is at 8:20 PM GMT. I'm quite eager to watch it, seeing as the last time I tried to do it was at Space School UK a few years back along with a large helping of professional and amateur astronomers, all of whom completely failed to realised that:

a) After waiting until 1AM, it wouldn't be visible for another few hours
b) It didn't even cover the UK

Still, it was a good night out, and hopefully tonight will be too - notwithstanding a trip to the local armed with free drinks vouchers which we got by winning the pub quiz last week.

12:32 PM | permalink | discuss

Monday, January 8

While doing a clear-out of some cupboards in the house, I was overjoyed to discover a seven year old copy of 'Your Internet Consultant: The FAQs of Life Online'. Not because I have any pressing need for seven year old information or that it's a particularly valuable book, but it does prove that I've been using the Internet for somewhere in the region of eight or nine years. This shockingly means that I first started out when I was nine or ten, and that doesn't even count the years spent on BBS services before that (ah, Echomail, how we missed ye).

This, by the way, qualifies me to speak in sage tones with bespectacled and bearded folk about the values of gopher, and how text browsers like Lynx weren't really that bad.

So, in fact, when I talk about the first kids growing up with the Internet, I am actually one of those kids. But I still don't feel I count among the real first generation of kids who've grown up with the Internet because I did it on my own. My friends didn't really start using the Internet for any appreciable amount of time until about two or three years, and before then I was on my own.

And, to be honest, there wasn't really that much to do on the Internet back then - I wasn't old enough to be interested or have the commitment to participate in the bourgeoning online communities (more's the shame), and of course you didn't have the sheer amount of content you have nowadays - news services, online magazines, games, entertainment reviews, weblogs, etc etc. Didn't have anyone to email either.

It would be interesting to see how the first generation of kids feel about the Internet. I've been told that generally when teenagers get involved with any sort of online community, e.g. the open source movement, discussion lists, they almost always hide their age. I know I did, and I know that when I finally did reveal my age there was more than a little surprise and in some cases, veiled hostility.

To me, this doesn't make sense. Is it a good thing that in order for teenagers and kids to fully participate and be accepted into any sort of online community, be it voluntary or commercial, they have to hide behind an anonymous mask or pseudonym? Clearly, we have a lot of work to do with ageism on the web and in the world, and not just that against the elderly.

There seems to be some sort of sacred cut-off point when you can start taking a teenager seriously - it's either when they turn 18, or when they enter university. Apparently we become much more mature. Of course, this isn't true; I don't feel too much different than I was one or two years ago, yet even so, now I'm treated with some more respect.

It might be difficult for people to believe this, but despite our obsession with pop figures like Britney Spears, there is nothing teenagers like better than being taken seriously and entrusted with responsibility. That trust might well be betrayed in many cases, but in countless others it will be rewarded.

Unsurprisingly, the computer industry has been the first to realise this since it's very easy for teenagers to demonstrate their expertise in programming on the Internet at no risk to the observer; that teenagers still have to adopt an anonymous mask even in programming on the Internet shows how far everyone else must go.

The question here is overprotection. We should be allowed to make our own mistakes and learn from them; we shouldn't be prevented from making them. You can give advice, you can provide help, but adults should not command and they should not make you do anything. Stop thinking that age equates to competence or even experience.

Needless to say, I've been at the receiving end of this prejudice for pretty much every single project I've worked on. Even now with Generation Mars we were recently forwarded an email from a Mars Society chapter stating that 'This project outline and what they've done so far is great! We should go and circulate it and find some project leaders to take it over, then we should integrate it into our six month plan, blah blah blah.'

What? This obviously doesn't make any sense, yet this is the way the world currently works. A sad state of affairs. Why is it so hard to believe that teenagers and kids can be good at something? Why is it so hard to believe in them?

4:15 PM | permalink | discuss

Sunday, January 7

Due to a fair number of conversations about instant messaging I've had both online and offline lately, I thought I'd say something about it here. I've been using ICQ for a few years now, and what with more of my friends coming online and resulting in me spending more time using it to chat, it's interesting to think about exactly how the ICQ mode of communication works. Seeing as most people use the instant messaging (IM) feature as opposed to the real-time chat, that's what I'll be concentrating on.

IM is a strange beast - you use it to chat in an extremely informal way - just like email or using SMS - but there are two interesting factors that are individual to IM. Firstly, at least with ICQ, you have a 450 character limit. This is, to say the least, pretty annoying in that you don't really have any chance for good, profound discussions. True, you can split your thoughts over several messages, but the method interrupts your stream of consciousness.

Now, while IM is a very good way of conducting more 'chatty' conversations than over email (which despite its informality seems very formal compared to IM), not only is it prey to the usual misinterpretations over written forms of communication (overanalysis, no body language, etc), but a whole new factor of uncertainty creeps in - the waiting period. That is, the time in between when you send your message and when you receive the reply. This doesn't apply to email, since for its all vaunted speed you don't expect an instant response, and neither does it apply to SMS on the phone as you rarely apply all (or even a large part) of your concentration on the conversation - so, again, you don't expect a quick reply.

Imagine - for some reason, the person you're talking to takes longer than usual to reply. Is it because you've offended them? Is it because they're writing a meaningful reply? Or is it simply because they've got up to get something to drink? Of course, you'll never actually know the truth so your imagination can run wild on what the implied meaning of the eventual message content and meta-content that comes with it.

Am I saying that IM is a 'bad' form of communication? Do such things even exist? This is straying into subjective territory (as if we weren't already in it) and personally each form of communication that exists has different pros and cons for different people in different situations. IM is in its formative stages, having only been with us for less than five years. In a decade or so, we'll become used to its quirks and doubtless those who have grown up with it won't even think there are quirks or problems.

Real face to face communication will always remain the one in which we're most sure of and experienced in using (not necessarily the 'best' form of communication though - again, it depends on what you're looking for); unfortunately, face to face communication is only possible when you're standing right next to the other person. That is, until we get full VR bodysuits and active contact lenses - why, that could take up to twenty years!

8:14 PM | permalink | discuss