Friday, July 15, 2011

The wonderous world of water or the revenge of Mother Earth

I just returned from a few days in the lower lands around Lutherstadt Wittenberg, the famous city where Martin Luther pinned his famous 95 theses that started the reformation. I spent some time with my parents at a little hut in the forest. It is a sandy area, forested by pine trees and in the wider area there used to be lots of open coal mines. Mining started in around 200 years ago, so there is little knowledge of what life was like before.

While there, we had to dig a hole to install a new sewage tank. At about 1.50 m, we already hit water. It was not much fun digging to 1.80 m while stuck in the water. Everyone was commenting on how wet is was the last couple of years. The water level of the little lake nearby was about 1 m higher than usual. The guy delivering the tank was telling us that lots of houses in the area got flooded, the water rose in the cellars and even flooded houses at the top of the tiny glacial hills in this area. In the town of Nachterstedt, three people died when a massive 2 ton piece of land disappeared into the nearby lake (an old coal mine). What the hell is happening?

It appears that there is combination of factors at play. First, as mentioned, the area was famous for its rich coal mines. Coal was mined in huge open pits, often hundreds of meters deep. For about 200 years, the water was pumped out and this sank the water table. Since the reunification, the demand of coal dropped and most mines were closed and were converted to artificial lakes. This brought the water table back up to probably original levels. Second, big industries also disappeared and therefore demand for water sank, leading further increases in ground water. Third, private households have to pay higher water prices and water consumption has plummeted. It also appears that global warming in this part of the world leads to higher precipitation, resulting in quasi-tropical down pours year round. Put all these things together and the 'sudden' rise in water and the land slides start to make sense.

The problem is that even supposedly environmentally friendly actions (e.g., closing mines or major industries, raising water prices) can have negative consequences. Humans have altered the planet for such a long time and at such intensive rate that well-intended actions can have unforeseen consequences. Our collective memory does not function to remind us how things were before we really started messing with the climate (which in Europe started probably around 2,000 years ago with the great migration and the ensuing deforestation).

We should not be surprised by random acts of 'revenge' by Mother Earth.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Turning earth into a Collective tamagochi

One of the reasons for coming to Berlin was to catch up with Rilla Khaled from ITU in Kopenhagen. She did her PhD on designing a culturally sensitive advergame that helps kids to stop smoking. It was a cool project with lots of potential (you can see her website with links to the game and technical papers here: brings us together is to do work and conduct research that has a positive impact on people and their lives. It turned out to be an idea-fuelled three hour super idea nuclear fusion session. The ideas were just whizzing through the air and one thought in one corner led to the next even better and crazier one.

How can we make the world a better place? It is a cheesy question, admittedly, but sometimes the cheese saves the day.

Here are some teasers. Think cellphones. Everyone has one (well most people have). Then think facebook. Everyone is on it and constantly connecting to everyone else on their list. This is the access route. People play games both on their facebook and on their phones. Some of the coolest games are those where you are playing with your friends. Remember those good old Mario Brother sessions playing against your brother or sister? Now imagine Dance Dance Revolution or Rock Star, but instead of doing dance steps or play the coolest rock bogan on the planet, use behaviour that makes a difference. Recycle, take the bike to work, help an old women across the street, volunteer for a good cause. Think of earth as a tamagochi that everyone wants to nurture. Now mix it all up and create the new social craze where our collective good actions make earth thrive. People report back via their mobile phones what they did and get credit in their game. Cameras or GPS systems can monitor and pinpoint cheaters and award penalties.
This is one of the base ideas. We had a final twist which could turn it into a super-cool next generation game. But that would be to spoil the beans, better watch Rilla's space....
These ideas are slightly creepy though... Why do we need to think of games to make people do good things? Why do we need to worry about cheaters and free-riders? But then, why not use the things and little gadgets that people are using to make world a better place.

Because we can :) Turn earth into a tamagochi that everyone cares about. Invent games that get people to do positive things (not shoot others), those that increase awareness, global consciousness, improve their health, turn the world green. Make the world a better place.
Play by play.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

The journey may start...

The sun is shining, sparrows are fighting over some breadcrumbs and I am sitting on a nice little balcony in Berlin taking my first steps into blogging cyberspace. Better late than never. The trip to Istanbul feels like it was yesterday and yet years ago in this mundane tranquility of a Saturday back street.
My mind is racing between the possibilities. All the thoughts that I had when I started thinking about a blog. Multiple personalities tried to express themselves, Fernando Pessoa was peeking over my shoulder and messing with my keyboard, flirting with Margaret Mead and Ruth Benedict over the shadows of Hofstede. But once I started typing, the chainsaw in the building site down the street began roaring and the noise of the kids playing on the street scared all these thoughts away. Maybe this will just be another blog about an individual lost in space, trying to find culture in the little corners of life and musing about the strange games that mind plays.
What is left is the wind playing with the leafs and the sun burning down. The TV tower is smiling down upon me and everyone else lazing in the city heat. Not bad for a Winter day in far-away NZ. Pretty good for a summer day in Berlin too.