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Through the Rabbithole: ARG Lecture

The proper title of this talk was 'Through the Rabbithole: The history and potential of Alternate Reality Games'. It was presented at the 2005 Montreal International Games Summit and is an introduction to the alternate reality gaming genre.

Below is an essay based on notes that I prepared for the talk. It is not a transcript of the talk, and it differs slightly in many areas. I have undoubtedly missed stuff out and added other stuff in, but it is largely the same.

Before I launch into a definition of alternate reality games, I think a good way of learning what they're like is telling you something that happened in a game that I'm working on, called Perplex City.

A couple of months ago in Perplex City, we had a live action text adventure event, which consisted of two developers pretending to be a computer for several hours. At the end of this event, we left a clue for our players. The clue was four words: 'Manchester City Centre Sky', and we thought it was pretty clear what it meant - go to the city centre of Manchester (in the UK) and look up at the sky. See, we were planning for a plane to fly over Manchester for an hour with banner with another clue.

Unfortunately, the players weren't sure what the words 'Manchester City Centre Sky' meant - did it mean they were supposed to go to Manchester City Centre and look up at the sky (yes), or go to the Manchester City Sky Centre? (definitely not). On reflection, we should have probably checked for the existence of such a building, and so for a while we were worried that the players might go off to this Sky Centre and miss the aerial banner. Eventually, though, one of the players came up with unconventional solution. She said that she'd look into police records about the usage of the building. 'Isn't that illegal?' asked one of the players? 'Yeah, but it's fun!' she replied.

And to me, that shows what alternate reality games are about - they involve the creation of an immersive story universe where players work together to solve problems, often in unconventional ways.

There's a whole bunch of stories like this, where players who crazy things. In 'I Love Bees', the promotional ARG for Halo 2, there's the famous story of someone walking into Hurricane Ivan to answer a payphone as part of the game. The lengths that people playing alternate reality games go to is truly incredible.

Now, alternate reality games have a rather grand title, but not everything that they do is completely new. However, they deserve their own genre due to two unique characteristics.

1) Immersive, cross media, make-believe drama.

ARGs attract players because of their compelling story and universe that pushes as far into other media as it can go. Alternate reality games these days might start with a phone number that leads you to an email address that leads you to a website that leads you to a live event. And while most activity in ARGs takes place online, the use of other media renders the game much more believable and real; it also heightens the drama.

2) Highly social, collective action.

This has been a feature of many recent ARGs, where puzzles have required up to hundreds or thousands of players working together. These puzzles might be 'distributed puzzles', such as those in 'I Love Bees' which required players to answer payphones all over the US, or merely very hard puzzles, which require a very large player base in order to have someone with the requisite specialist knowledge to solve it. Interestingly, a recent ARG produced by the BBC called 'Jamie Kane' is single player and does not feature this social or collective action, and I'll be coming back to it later on.

First, a brief history of alternate reality games. The first ARG was a promotion for the movie A.I. in 2001, produced by Microsoft and Dreamworks SKG. This game was called 'The Beast' and the entry points to the game - the rabbitholes - were as diverse as a fake name on the movie poster, or a code hidden in the movie trailer. As people explored these rabbitholes, they discovered a network of websites that all pretended that they were based over 100 years in the future and centred around the story of a man called Evan Chan, who had been murdered. The interesting thing about 'The Beast' is that at the time, no-one knew who was responsible - neither Microsoft nor Dreamworks owned up to being behind it.

The Beast was a great success and attracted an awful lot of publicity; unfortunately the movie itself didn't do so well. Very shortly after The Beast, Electronic Arts released a game called Majestic. Majestic was produced in parallel to The Beast and was a very technically accomplished game, but it never really took off. There are a few reasons for this. Firstly, it suffered in comparison to The Beast; while The Beast was free to play, you had to buy a monthly subscription to Majestic. Partly as a result, Majestic didn't involve the same sort of highly social, collective action that The Beast featured, although this was also down to the way the game was designed. A few months after its release, Majestic was wound up.

The failure of Majestic to attract a big, paying audience put a dampener on the genre for a while, and during this time it was kept alive by the thriving grassroots scene. Despite the fact that ARGs have a lot of fancy stuff like coded adverts in newspapers, live events, telephone calls and aerial banners, the only thing that you really need is web hosting - and of course, insane amounts of free time. Due to this low barrier of entry, some of the grassroots games were very good, such as Lockjaw and Metacortechs.

There were a few other ARGs during this time - generally promotional ARGs for companies like Sharp - but nothing that produced the same impact as The Beast. And then in 2004, a new ARG called 'I Love Bees' came out, as a promotion for Halo 2. I Love Bees was produced by the same guys who did The Beast, but at a new company called 42 Entertainment; like The Beast, it attracted a lot of players and involved the payphone mechanic I mentioned earlier. It also won the 2005 GDC Award for Innovation, which made a lot of people take notice of the genre. 42 began another ARG called Last Call Poker a couple of months ago, which is tied into Activision's new 'Gun' game.

Also in 2005, the company that I belong to - Mind Candy - released Perplex City. Perplex City is different to many other ARGs, with the possible exception of Majestic, in not being a promotion for a game or a car or movie or anything like that. Instead, Perplex City is a standalone game that ties into a puzzle-based collectible card game. I'll talk more about Perplex City in a little while.

So that's the brief history of alternate reality games, but where are we now? What's the significance of ARGs relative to the rest of games and entertainment? Well, ARGs are realisation of actual immersive, cross-media gaming, which no-one has really done before. Instead of just using the web and newspapers and radio and TV just for adverts, ARGs make them part of the story. Making an advert that is part of story of an ARG is difficult, but it can be very successful - people always prefer being part of story, part of adventure, than just being sold something - it's better to treat people intelligently.

Related to this is the issue to interactivity and free will, which obviously features heavily in alternate reality games, with their dynamic, real time stories. ARG designers obviously plan the game and story in advance, but they don't do it in high detail. If they do, events and players tend to have a habit of doing the opposite of what you want. So while designers might know the endpoint of their story, and checkpoints along the way, they won't necessarily know exactly how they're going to get there. That's what the players do - by interacting with the characters in the story and solving problems and puzzles, they help create the story themselves.

Other media is creeping in this direction. Take Lost, for example. How many people here watch Lost? A lot. You probably know about the mysterious numbers then. The creators of Lost hadn't intended for the numbers to play such a big part in the story, but after they saw the reaction of their viewers to them on all the internet discussion forums, they decided to increase their importance. They've also created a bunch of mini-websites online that pretend that the Lost universe is real, so there's an Oceanic Airlines website, for example. It's not the same as an ARG, but it's a step in that direction. The most popular drama in the UK this year was Doctor Who, and they also created websites that were part of the story.

But this is a games conference, not a TV conference, so let me give you an example from there. For their game 'Far Cry', Ubisoft produced a travel booklet called 'The Rough Guide to the Jacutan Archipelago'. Obviously no-one actually believes that the Jacutan Archipelago is real, but it's a nice example of a videogame crossing over into another form of media in a way that isn't merely normal advertising.

Alternate reality games are not first time people have created a believable fictional reality, though. Going back almost 4000 years ago, the most popular ancient Egyptian story ever, as measured in extant copies, is the Tale of Sinuhe. This story basically pretends that it's a recounting of real events, and it's told in the way of traditional official letters or records of that period. It's possible that its popularity was because of this mimicking or subversion of 'traditional media'.

Coming forward a few thousand years, the epistolatory fiction in 19th century continued on this theme, where authors would claim to have found a most extraordinary bundle of letters in their attic or cellar or whatever, and proceed to recount the letters in their book. Of course, they made the whole thing up, including the letters, but due to the nature of the story's presentation as something that could be real, the stories becomes a lot more visceral and involving to readers.

Last century, radio provided a new outlet that had vivid, evocative real time access to comparatively naive mass audiences. The example that everyone's heard about is Orson Welles' War of the Worlds in 1938, but even 12 years before that, the BBC did something very similar. A normal talk show was interrupted with breaking news about Big Ben being destroyed by trench mortars and a government minister lynched in a revolution. Like War of the Worlds, a great number of people were seriously alarmed by the 'show' and there was a huge uproar in the press in the following days. Both shows worked primarily because they mimicked every detail of the normally trustworthy news broadcasts - not just the voices, but also the way that people stutter and interrupt each other, and the way that news reports are often confused and disjointed at first.

It would be tempting to think that War of the Worlds was a one off, but when it was adapted in 1944 for broadcast in Santiago, Chile, the governor of one province was convinced enough to briefly mobilise army units to repel the invading Martians.

In a way, radio is even more evocative than TV, because it's so much more personal and leaves so much more to the imagination. That may be one reason why we haven't seen dramas that are as dramatically believable or alarming on TV, although another reason might be that TV studios are just more nervous these days. The sort of 'believeable fictions' that have appeared on the TV tend to be straightforward hoaxes. Having said that, the Blair Witch movie did rather well out of pretending to be a true story and as you'll recall, it used the web to push that idea even further.

And now we're back up to the present again. So now the question is, why have alternate reality games only just appeared now? It's not as if someone couldn't have made an alternate reality game that used different media in the past, right? Or maybe it's not that simple. While it would be possible to tell a story using TV, radio, newspapers and telephone in the past, the cost would have been prohibitively high for anyone bothered enough to try - how would you notify people about what part of the story was being told where? You'd need a dedicated source of information that could be updated instantly and cheaply, and that just wasn't available. Not until the Internet.

The internet serves as glue and hub for all the different types of media involved in ARGs. It solves the problem of telling people what happens when, and it allows you to put up as much information as you want. Furthermore, it's very easy to build in deep interaction on the Internet. Running things like live events in ARGs would be extremely difficult without the internet.

Let me show you an example of a live event we ran last week for Perplex City. (run VT).

At this event, we had about sixty players turning up in south London at short notice. This part of the story was fairly simple - the players were supposed to solve a treasure hunt/scavenger hunt in order to to find out where some secret agents were meeting. As you can see, there was a pretty remarkable mix of ages and genders.

This worked out more or less fine, and just as they were about to get to the meeting place, they realised it was a heliport, which was very exciting. Once there, players working in parallel online discovered that one of people among the players was the spy in question, working undercover! After his cover was blown, he ran off into a helicopter and flew off into the sunset. A rather rainy sunset - this was London, after all.

The reaction to the live event was great - I've heard the final sequence with the helicopter described as being one of the most realistic, most interactive game cut sequences in history. The players also loved the way that the spy had been watching and talking to them all day.

The current state of alternate reality games today is rather varied. You have the promotional ARGs for companies like Audi, Nokia, TV shows, videogames and movies. Then there's Perplex City, which is a standalone ARG integrated into a puzzle-based collectible card game. Finally, there's the grassroots sector, which is a great engine for innovation due to the low barrier to entry. What I'll be talking about now are the challenges and potential for ARGs in the next few years.

There are a lot of challenges. The audience for ARGs is much smaller than that for videogames. A really popular ARG would be lucky to get an active player base numbering in the low six figures, as opposed the millions of sales that other videogames attract. There are a few reasons for this; the genre is new, and it's hard to understand what an ARG even is at first. As a result, it's not particularly easy to market, as EA discovered with Majestic.

Another problem is that the classic strength of ARGs being incredibly involving and immersive is also a serious weakness - many potential players are scared off by the large time investment that is apparently required. The pitfalls of a rich and fully realised, cross-media story universe is that it takes time to get into, let alone join halfway through. Of course, this isn't a problem limited to ARGs - shows like Lost and 24 have very complex and intricate storylines that are practically impossible to get into after a few episodes. Yet TV does have some interesting solutions to offer ARGs for this problem, such as episodic storytelling.

Until very recently, ARGs had no replay factor. However, this is changing now; the Jamie Kane ARG produced by the BBC is completely replayable, but it's also single player, so it loses out on the social aspects. A more traditional multiplayer ARG that was tied into the Canadian SF show Regenesis and produced by Xenophile Media - based in Toronto - is being rerun, and it'll be interesting to see how that goes.

Some more problems: there are currently no reliable metrics to work out the success of an ARG. Do you count the number of hits? The number of registrations? At least with Perplex City, we have an ultimate measurement in terms of the number of puzzle cards we sell, but what about promotional ARGs? How do you measure whether a promotional ARG really does benefit the product it's associated with?

Yet despite this - despite the small audiences, despite the challenges of getting people playing, the challenges of measuring success, people in the UK and around the world - many of whom are interestingly media outlets and TV studios - are very excited about the potential of ARGs. At a time when people are turning their TV off, or at least not paying much attention to it, ARGs offer a new type of richer, more interactive, more visceral entertainment that also joins people together.

Instead of ARGs merely being bolt-ons to products like TV shows and movies, it's likely that the next generation will be built in from the start. This would allow players to actually influence TV show in a meaningful way other than voting by text message. We could see players become part of an epic story that would becoming affect and involve them more than ever before. We managed that with 60 people last week - the question is whether you can do it with 60 million people?

For games, the potential is even greater. At the simplest level, ARGs allow you to build and continue storylines in between games in a series. We've all been hearing how important original IP these days - ARGs are an engine for creating high quality stories and IP at the same time as marketing and extending your game to a wider, non-traditional audience. Making people care about your story and universe and characters is incredibly important, because that's what makes it different from other games - it's not just a coat of paint that you slap on a car as an afterthought. Story is the reason why Harry Potter and Star Wars continue to make billions even though there are plenty of novels about magic kids and movies about spaceships out there.

There's the potential to use elements of ARGs in normal games, like Far Cry has already demonstrated. This is particularly relevant to MMOGs. The Matrix Online is almost perfect in its suitability; it's a story where the real world is a computer simulation - what better ARG could there be? They've taken one or two steps towards that end by creating some fake corporate websites, but what about fake newspaper ads or TV ads. Imagine what it would be like to have Agent Smith knock on your door while you're playing the game.

We're only scratching the surface of what's possible here, after four years after the first ARG. We already have a lot of different types of games, but there are so many more stories and possibilities to be played out, like romance games, crime games, humorous games. You could have games that are truly cross media, that involvine every method of getting information to the public as possible. And that has the potential of attracting not only a new type of audience, or a new type of story, but a new way of playing games - hundreds of thousands players collaborating together across the world, players being part of the story, shaping the story and becoming immersed in the story. It would generate a level of attachment and loyalty to a game universe that hasn't been seen before. To me, that's what's exciting about ARGs.

Here are some useful links if you're interested in ARGs:

The Alternate Reality Gaming Network


Last Call Poker

Perplex City


Monday November 21, 2005
I'm not sure why, but for some reason I've been going on a reading and writing spree in the past couple of weeks. It may have something to do with the fact that I've stopped playing Civilization 4 (at least until the patch comes out) - that saves an hour or two every night, but it's not just that, since I wasn't reading much before then either. Perhaps it was just some 'reading potential' that was building up in me. Here's what I've been reading:

The Company of Strangers by Paul Seabright

This book is emblematic of the sort of thing I really find interesting. The central idea is that humans have developed the ability to deal with strangers without robbing or killing them, and this is what's driven economic and social progress over the last few thousand years (and also caused countless wars). It's a combination of biology, psychology, history and economics, and it's really very well written. An illustration that runs through the book is the sheer number of strangers who work together (often unknowingly) in order to produce a single cotton shirt.

Ripples of Battle by Victor Davis Hanson

I can't recall where I read about this book - it was either from The Economist or some worthy site linked to from Arts & Letters Daily. In any case, Hanson writes about how three battles spread over history (Delium, 424BC; Shiloh, 1862; Okinawa, 1945) have influenced the world in very unexpected ways. When I received the book, I was expecting it to basically be about military history, and the the influences of the battles Hanson would consider would be on military knowledge. After reading the lengthy introduction about how Hanson's uncle was killed during the battle for Okinawa, which initially left me wondering why he was spending so much time talking about it, I realised that the 'ripples of battle' he was going to talk about would not just be about military matters.

To be sure, the first chapter, on Okinawa, mainly dealt with the consequences of the huge bloodshed there and how that affected short and long-term military thinking with regards to attacking the Japanese mainland, and also dealing with Korea and Vietnam. However, the next two chapters on Shiloh and Delium are rather different. Shiloh started off just as I expected - all sorts of interesting stuff about how Sherman's strategy of taking the battle to the heartland of the South was a prelude to the sort of 'surgical strikes' on infrastructure employed by the US in the future. Unexpectedly, Hanson spent several pages talking about how wonderful Albert Sidney Johnston (the general in charge of the losing, Southern, side at Shiloh) was. I was rather puzzled by this, until Hanson tied Johnston's death at the battle to the way in which the South felt that they had only lost the Civil War by an accident (rather than being totally outclassed by the North). There were a couple more examples to do with Ben Hur and the KKK as well.

Delium goes much the same way - Hanson relates it to the development of battle tactics, the development of Western philosophy, and much besides. Ripples of Battle was a fun book to read, and all the more pleasing because it confounded my expectations. Unfortunately you won't have that same experience because I've spoiled it for you, but perhaps it might convince you to read it anyway.

Code: The Hidden Language of Computer Hardware and Software by Charles Petzold

I began reading this book about a week ago, and finished yesterday. That doesn't sound particularly impressive until you realise that Petzold explains exactly how computers work, starting from binary and a simple circuit consisting of a battery and light, slowly building up to electrical relays, logic gates, adding machines, random access memory, transistors, microchips, operating systems and finally culminating at graphical user interfaces. And I mean exactly - he doesn't gloss anything over; if you read this book, you'd understand how to build and programme a computer from scratch, providing you had the parts.

I love these types of books. I always had some trouble with complex concepts like these in maths or physics, where you'd spend a lot of time on some outrageously simple example (like a lightbulb circuit) and then suddenly jump to a calculator, without enumerating the steps in between. Petzold fills in the steps, and he explains them clearly and concisely; not too fast, not too slow. He also takes the time to properly explain how to construct all those interesting things like logic gates that we all know about, but don't really know how they work. This is the sort of book that I would like to write - an interesting, enjoyable book that leads you from simple beginnings to highly complex systems. In some ways, it's not too dissimilar to Bill Bryson's A Short History of Nearly Everything in its clear writing style.


I'm going to break this chain of factual books with Wonder Boys by Michael Chabon, one of my favourite authors. I've read most of his other books, but oddly enough, not his most famous. I have a bunch of other books on their way, including The Emperor's New Mind, which I've already read but could do with rereading, School of Dreams and A War Like No Other. I figure that if I'm in the mood for reading, I might as well keep the books coming until it passes. 0

Monday November 14, 2005
Astonishingly, for the second time in a single month, I've posted to the 'massive' section, with a rather wordy report on the Montreal International Games Summit. This is the conference where I spoke about ARGs, and discovered that there's more to Montreal than the fact that they speak French there. It was a fun and useful conference, and anyone into games (and some people who aren't) might find a few interesting bits in the report - I've tried to make it accessible for people outside of the games community as well.

As soon as I can clean it up, I'll also be posting my presentation notes on this weblog as well, although they'll be relatively sparse, since that's the way I write them. 0

Saturday November 5, 2005
The popular games weblog Joystiq regularly posts about promotional ARG campaigns, generally to do with new games or consoles like the XBox. Until today, that is. Today, they proclaimed that they were sick of viral marketing and sick of ARGs. Their list of complaints include the fact that ARGs are predictable, not entertaining (this is more of a thing against viral marketing, I think), superfluous (arguably true), artificially difficult (again true in some cases) and delayed gratification (yeah, we're talking about countdowns here).

You know what? I agree. I'm sick of ARGs like that. They give the genre a bad name. Campaigns like Our Colony and Origen to name but two are not even deserving of the title 'ARG', but since they share some of their characteristics - cryptic websites, difficult puzzles - the public thinks they are representative. And this applies to other recent ARGs as well.

Promotional ARGs have a lot of shaping up to do. I'm not going to predict their demise because I think there are still fresh ways for ARGs to go about promoting products, but the problem is that the people ARGs are often aimed at - early adopters - are also incredibly sensitive to marketing, and it's very difficult to get past that sensitivity. The more badly designed ARGs there are, the more likely the chance that even more websites like Joystiq will simply write off the whole genre.

The sad thing for me is that people think ARGs are synonymous with viral marketing campaigns (which is probably the most unfortunately-named marketing technique in existence). It's true that ARGs are often promoting other products, but it's not a rule. Just look at Jamie Kane or Regenesis for examples of good non-promotional ARGs - or a certain Perplex City, for that matter. For me, the brightest future for ARGs lies in entertainment and education - not promotion. That's what gets people excited. 0

Monday October 24, 2005
Regular readers may have noticed some subtle change in the appearance of my weblog - yes, I have in fact posted a new article in the 'massive' section. It's not very long, but people into alternate reality games might be interested. Basically, it's an edited version of the extended abstract I sent into the GDC 2006 conference a few months ago. Now, I admit that the 'All Games will be Alternate Reality Games' title is rather hyperbolic, but I'm increasingly being persuaded that it's the case for more and more games. One interesting piece of news I heard recently was that Far Cry published a short 'The Rough Guide to Jacutan Archipelago", a fictional place in the game. This is not a particularly new idea - I still recall the story goodies you used to get from games like Elite and Ultima - but it's nice to see the concept return. 1

Saturday October 8, 2005
I was delighted to read that at least three teams had gotten to the end of the DARPA Grand Challenge, which saw autonomously-driven cars run along a 211km course - which, importantly, they didn't know in advance. And yet what spin does BBC News put on it? They say that the technology will be used for the war in Iraq and Afganistan.

Now, it probably will be used for that, and I bet the US military is overjoyed about this. But the wider implications are much more important than self-driven trucks in Iraq; while I know that this doesn't mean we'll see self-driven cars on the motorway any time soon, it does mean that it *will* happen, and that it *can* happen, and that it won't even be that expensive or difficult either. Not just self-driven cars, either - self-driven *everything*. Dear bog, the possibilities are incredible; I can see the entire transport network being totally transformed in just a few decades.

I'm not normally one to go off on the Iraq war, but now it's really pissing me off in hijacking any useful discussion of new technology. 2

Monday September 19, 2005
An unusual thing happened to me recently. I received an email from someone from the BBC who was interested in learning more about alternate reality games. In the process of our chat, she mentioned she was involved with producing a TV show for Asians and wondered if I knew any British Asians who were into gadgets, technology, that sort of thing. I said I'd have a look, and that incidentally, I was an Asian who was into gadgets, etc.

Then she asked me if I was Indian, because the programme was for Indians. Of course, I'm not, and so it ended there. But it made me notice how the British media equates Asians with Indians, or at least people from the Indian subcontinent. The next time you read a newspaper or magazine, or in particular, view the BBC, look out for where 'Asian' is mentioned, and you'll find that what they really mean are Indians.

Take, for example, this BBC pictorial about Asians in Britain. Very interesting, I'm sure. But it's all about people from the Indian subcontinent. There is nary a Chinese, Malaysian, Japanese, Thai or Korean person to be seen, despite the fact that they also live in Asia.

Now, this doesn't particularly bother me. Asia is a big continent, after all. And while there are more than a million people in the UK from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, there are less than a quarter of a million from Hong Kong, Malaysia, China and Singapore combined (Source: BBC). It's hardly surprising that the Indian subcontinent gets more attention in the media. But there's no point going on about Asians or 'Asian programming on the BBC' when what you're really talking about is Indians or 'programmes that are to do with Indians'; it gives the false impression of inclusion, where there is none. 2

mmoe Links
Report on the AI game
Assorted Links
New Mars
Vavatch Orbital
tiny pictures

A random selection from my Flickr photo library. The easiest way to browse all the photos is through my photo tags.

November 25, 2005
Scientists, be on guard ... ET might be a malicious hacker - nice to see people starting to think about the possibility of a viral attack by aliens. Doesn't seem too outlandish to me (honestly) and brings to mind shades of Vernor Vinge. 0

November 22, 2005
Interesting Metafilter discussion about the Muslim niqab (dress for females that covers everything except the eyes) 0

October 25, 2004
The notorious cult of 'al gebra' is a fearsome cult indeed. Says Attorney General John Ashcroft, "The desire average solutions by means and extremes, and sometimes go off on a tangent in a search of absolute value." The fact that I understand it and find it funny is a true testament to my geek credentials. 0

March 20, 2004
A transcript of the debate between Philip Pullman, author of the His Dark Materials trilogy and Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury. Essential reading for Pullman fans and anyone interested in the portrayal of religion in contemporary fiction. 0

February 25, 2004
EasyMusic and Copyleft - interesting to see that Stelios is considering dabbling in the world of Copyleft music: "We are currently investigating business opportunities in the area of music downloads, especially following the 'copyleft' principle. Copyleft is where music has no copyright at all so music can be freely downloaded from sites and exchanged between people as much as they want." Of course, it's not entirely true that Copyleft music has 'no copyright at all' but I suppose for most people the distinction is neglegible. 0

February 4, 2004
Remembrance of Books Past - an article by Ray Bradbury in which he talks about the idea of rewriting books from memory; a never-realised sequel to Fahrenheit 451. "Why not a sequel to 'Fahrenheit 451' in which all the great books are remembered by the Wilderness People and are finally reprinted from memory. What then? Wouldn't it be that all would be misremembered, none would come forth in their original garb? Wouldn't they be longer, shorter, taller, fatter, disfigured, or more beautiful?" (via MetaFilter). 0

February 2, 2004
Ares Express Issue 3 is now online - this week's issue covers a talk I'm giving to the Oxford University Society Society in a fortnight, in addition to a selection of the best threads from the New Mars forums and interesting Mars news from around the Internet. 0

January 16, 2004
Ares Express - I've just finished writing the first issue of a new weekly newsletter at New Mars that will highlight the best threads and discussion in the forums, as well as links to Mars news across the Internet. I'm hoping that the bulk of subsequent issues will consist of submissions from forum members. 0

January 11, 2004
Artists and the Red Planet - It seems scarcely possible, but BBC News Online has written an article about Mars novels and films, and managed to leave out Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars trilogy. This is not a trifling omission; KSR's trilogy is unchallenged as being the best and most important modern fiction about Mars. And yet they still included 'Mission to Mars' and 'Mars Attacks'? 0

January 8, 2004
Tokyo finders not keepers - a charming article from the IHT/NYT about the practice of lost property in Japan actually being returned to a national network of lost and found centres by finders, as opposed to being swiped. There is still hope left for humanity, it seems, if we can follow the Japanese example. 0

January 6, 2004
He Was A Crook - Hunter S. Thompson's damning eulogy for his arch-enemy, Richard Nixon. "Some of my best friends have hated Nixon all their lives. My mother hates Nixon, my son hates Nixon, I hate Nixon, and this hatred has brought us together. Nixon laughed when I told him this. "Don't worry," he said, "I, too, am a family man, and we feel the same way about you." 0

January 5, 2004
Does anyone know why the International Herald Tribune's website hasn't been updated for a good two weeks? Do they normally take a long holiday in December, or is something more sinister afoot? I need to get my international news fix, now! (Looks like they went back to work today, the website has finally been updated) 0

How to hit a bullseye on Mars - an article about the lengths the navigators for the current NASA Mars missions had to go to land the Spirit Rover right on target, entering the Martian atmosphere within 200m of the desired point (via MetaFilter). 0

December 11, 2003
Ask MetaFilter - truly one of the best ideas that's hit the Internet this year. There are other websites that provide general advice, but none with the community and (some might say) highly intelligent and educated userbase of MetaFilter. 0

November 18, 2003
Some photos of my trip to London to belatedly toast the destruction of the Culture Listserver, courtesy of Steve. 1

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