Category Archives: News

Birmingham’s New Library is Virtually There


22/7/11: I’ve added an update to this post at the end.

25/9/13: Daden’s slideshow on the finished project added

I’ve got a bit of a soft spot for Birmingham.   I visited the museums when I was a kid, and particularly liked the Museum of Science and Industry.  Then I spent six years studying engineering and researching at the University during the 1980s: many happy memories there too.  But I don’t think in all that time I visited the main public library; at the University we seemed to have everything we needed on campus.

Anyhow, I’m making up for it now with a visit to Birmingham’s NEW library – all from the comfort of my armchair, and at six o’clock in the morning no less.

While construction of the actual building is ongoing, this virtual world simulation in Second Life has been built to help the designers test out the design and make some fine tunings based on public reaction.

Regular readers might know I’m quite sympathetic to virtual worlds, although I’ve often felt I’m ahead of the curve in my enthusiasm.  This simulation by virtual world consultants and builders Daden Ltd reminded me of a similar pilot the London Strategic Health Authority built in association with Dave Taylor‘s team at Imperial College, to test out peoples reactions to getting around a building delivering centralised medical services.  I found out about the Library project from a post on Hypergrid Business Magazine; so hats off to them.

Anyhow, I think one of the points of these exercises is to judge first reactions and impressions, so this post is just my unedited walk-through, stopping now and again to take virtual photographs, with a few of my thoughts along the way.  For the avoidance of doubt, I’m the guy with the NASA 50 tee-shirt and angry ant buried in my shoulder – don’t ask.   I’ll remind you how to make your own visit at the end of the post.

Birmingham sure has changed since I lived here.  You appear in the simulation next to an explanatory board outside the library in a large piazza.  Real photographs on easels are scattered around the simulation showing how real-life construction of that particular bit of the library is progressing.

I thought I’d get cute and do what I’d do in real life, arriving at, say, the British Library in London: get my priorities right and suss out the coffee, toilets and restaurant.  The other important resource is a place to plug in my computer and recharge my phone.  And w-fi of course.  And a place to sit.  And on-line catalogues.  And books.

Anyhow, they were way ahead of me.  The first little bit of interaction that hits you is a survey of how you like to take coffee: with friends, with  a good book, place to meet up with folk etc.  There’s instant feedback on the poll in the form of coloured pillars proportional in size to the response.  I could have ticked several boxes, but plumped for coffee with a good book.

As it turned out, there are quite a lot of toilets.

On to a cafe / restaurant area.  This all has a great feel to it by the way, with a good sense of space and scale.  On the eating front though, I wasn’t clear quite what will be on offer; i.e. will there be various grades of bar, cafe, restaurant, fine-dining etc.  Maybe they don’t know yet.

More loos.

Looks like a theatre, although I didn’t manage to get into the auditorium itself.  I think I’ll pop back later in the day and see if any of these desks are manned by virtual people.  I did bump into one other visitor on this crack of dawn visit, but no project people.

This is cute: kiddies area with kiddy-size furniture and cuddly penguins and stuff lying around.  Middle-age man with ant on shoulder hanging around.  There was also some attractive Spanish Steps-style cushioned seating in this zone; think my camera jammed on that one.


Here’s a bunch of those wind-open walk-in book cabinets you find in libraries.

This is the Youth Zone again, with practice booths on the left.  Not sure what’s being practiced  – languages maybe?

Working up the building, here’s a suitably dark-tomed business area.

Interesting to see if this artwork makes it to real thing.  Again, this sort of thing in the simulation conveys the tone and attitude of the place.  More loos, notice.

Some empty spaces still to be developed: meeting rooms maybe?   Incidentally, I like the way this simulation lets you walk through the occasional unopened door, or even wall.  Interaction adds realism, but fiddly interaction for no purpose  – like aligning yourself with a revolving door to get through it – is just irritating.   They  got the balance here right I think.

This was quite something.  Towering walls covered in books.  Guess we’re in a library.

Near the top of the building is a roof garden.  Some nice views over the piazza.  Reminded me of the Royal Festival Hall on the South Bank – only better.

Top floors are staff only: explains why I couldn’t get up there.

The only weird techno-hiccup I found.  Sit down to play the piano and you fall into the floor.

Free of the Carbonite, taking in the cultural vibe.  Looks like some Friday evening entertainment, drink in hand, can be had.

Speaking of which.  The whole consumption thing in virtual worlds is a little weird by the way; but you can imagine what this area will be like with folk milling around after work.

And off I go.

In conclusion, it’s fair to say I got a pretty good overall impression of how the building is likely to feel and the facilities on offer.  If you want to know how the actual library activities will work: how to access databases and such like, that’s not what this is about.

I just whisked round quickly today, but I’ll go back later and leave some feedback.  The Hypergrid piece talks about various feedback mechanisms – virtual Post-Its and such like, although I can’t say they jumped out at me.  I’m also guessing the library may add more interactive tools, videos and such like explaining more detail on the facilities, as time goes on.

It will also be interesting to see if the simulation is kept alive after the library-proper is built; I’m thinking simultaneous broadcasts of events from the lecture theatre for example.  Very handy for us London-dwellers.

As promised: if you want to visit, you’ll need a Second Life account (free), and then teleport to the Library of Birmingham region.  You can find me in Second Life as Erasmus Magic.

Overall, looks like a great library in the making; and a friendly, intuitive job on the simulation by the library staff and Daden.


UPDATE 22/7/2011

Information point

That was one fast whistle stop tour.   So fast, as Soulla Stylianou from Daden kindly pointed out, that I completely missed the Library Guide I should have picked up on the way in: a sort of Heads-Up-Display that lets you take a self-guided tour and draw on extra info from the various giant turquoise i’s floating around.

So I’ve just made a return visit to virtual Birmingham – suitably equipped this time – also taking in the aptly named ‘Book Tour’, an annotated ride taken magic carpet fashion on a giant book.  And why not?

I now know amongst other things about the close integration on the project with Birmingham Reperatory Theatre (REP) and, for example, that the practice rooms are for musical instruments, not, as previously suspected, languages.

I also found that for more background to the project, the best starting point is this briefing area, where there’s also DIY training on offer for the Second Life novice.

Lastly, I checked out the interactive control and feedback tools; the simulation lets visitors:

– in ‘annotated spaces’, make comments in the form of smiley-ball graphics that other visitors can in turn comment on , voting an idea up (agree=green) or down (disagree=red).  Active votes range from an appeal to ensure desks are made user-friendly for disabled people, to someone who doesn’t like the yellow carpet.

– with a click change the furnishings / decor / mood of an area, i.e. gallery, music, seating :

 – vote on multiple choice answers to questions posed by the organisers.

Second time around, I’m still of the view simulations like this, while not perfect, bring an angle to communications – and in this case I guess a consultation – that can’t be achieved any other way.  I like the comment/voting system; it will be interesting to see how many green and red smileys appear over the coming months.

Update September 2013

Slide presentation on the project by Daden on Slideshare

Of related interest on Zoonomian

Getting Real about our Virtual Future


Buon Compleanno Galileo – “Eppur si muove”

“And yet it moves” – supposedly the rider Galileo Galilei added to his confession to the Inquisition when questioned about the earth’s movement around the sun.

And clock hands move too – across timezones.  That makes it comfortably still 15th February in my equal most favouritistical country, the USA –  so,  HAPPY BIRTHDAY GALILEO!

To tell you all about him:  heeeeeeeere’s Carl…..

Secularist Of The Year

The National Secular Society’s annual award for Secularist of the Year has been awarded jointly to Dr Evan Harris MP and Lord Avebury, for their success in getting blasphemy laws abolished.  I joined the event this afternoon, which was also a celebration of Charles Darwin’s 200th anniversary, at the Imperial Hotel in central London.

Dr Evan Harris MP and  Lord Avebury, with Executive Director NSS Keith Porteous Wood
Dr Evan Harris MP and Lord Avebury, with Executive Director NSS Keith Porteous Wood and Richard Dawkins. (Photo Tim Jones)

The awards were made by Professor Richard Dawkins, and comprised a golden ammonite trophy and a cheque for £5000.  Both winners declined to keep the money and donated it instead for next year’s prize.

Richard Dawkins inspects a 'golden ammonite' trophy before presenting it
Richard Dawkins inspects a 'golden ammonite' trophy as Keith Porteous-Wood looks on. (Photo Tim Jones)

A range of politicians, scientists, celebrities, and commentators of various types were in the audience: including from the scientific community Prof.Peter Atkins.  Prof.Steve Jones, a previous year’s winner of the prize, sent best wishes.  Science journalists included Simon Singh (Fermat’s Last Theorem), and Ben Goldacre (Bad Science).   I also spotted former news presenter Anna Ford, and comedian Robin Ince.

Face in the crowd - Professor Peter Atkins
Face in the crowd - Professor Peter Atkins. (Photo Tim Jones)

The abolition of the blasphemy law in 2008 was something of a coup for the NSS.   Secularists have been fighting for years what has seemed like an unwinnable battle, and I sense the movement still can’t quite believe its success.  While not used since the 1970s, Christian evangelicals had been pushing for a revival in the application of the law.

Lord Averbury with trophy
Lord Averbury with trophy (Photo Tim Jones)

A statement on the NSS website after the event said: ‘The ancient law was called the common law offence of blasphemous libel, and was widely thought to be incompatible with the European Convention on Human Rights. Despite this, the Government had not been keen to abolish it, we believe because of fear of discomforting the Established Church. They see abolition as an attack on their privileged position and a possible first step towards disestablishment.’

Dr Evan Harris MP
Dr Evan Harris MP (Photo Tim Jones)

It was a lively afternoon, where the company, food, and entertainment were all excellent.   The formal entertainment took the form of a re-enactment of a debate held in Oxford in 1860 between Thomas Huxley (Darwin’s Bulldog) and the Bishop of Oxford, Samuel Wilberforce (Soapy Sam).   In ultimate irony, Wilberforce was (a little too convincingly) played by Terry Sanderson, the President of the NSS.  Given the audience, the winner of the debate was never at issue.

Terry Sanderson - convincing portrayal of Bishop Wilberforce
NSS President, Terry Sanderson - convincing portrayal of Bishop Wilberforce (Photo Tim Jones)
Thomas Huxley - 'Darwin's Bulldog'
Thomas Huxley - 'Darwin's Bulldog'
Bishop 'Soapy' Samuel Wilberforce

Joint winner Lord Avebury’s story is equally ironic.  His grandfather, one of Darwin’s great supporters and a member of the ‘X Club‘ with Huxley, was not actually an atheist: he was too ‘conventional’, Avebury said.   Indeed, incongruous with his grandson’s award today, his grandfather had been instrumental in having Darwin buried in Westminster Abbey.

Evan Harris, who one critic has described as humourless, was everything but, quipping in surprise as he received his golden ammonite trophy: “I was always taught at Hebrew School that the Ammonites were slain by the Israelites”.

End Of An Icon?

It was sad to hear the news today that Waterford Wedgwood, the company formed from an amalgamation of Waterford glass and Wedgwood pottery, has fallen into administration.

The name Wedgwood, and its most characteristic and recognised Jasper Ware products, are well known icons of the British pottery industry.   Perhaps less well known are the links between the founder of Wedgwood pottery, Josiah Wedgwood, and the Darwin family – including Erasmus Darwin, the inspiration for this blog.

Wedgwood's Portland Vase

As discussed in this earlier post, Erasmus and Josiah were close friends and core  ‘Lunar Men’.  The two exchanged ideas and letters on a range of topics from canals to pyrometers,  Erasmus bringing his chemistry knowledge to bear in developing new colours for pottery.   He later designed a windmill for grinding  pigments at Wedgwood’s factory at ‘Etruria’.

Wedgwood’s daughter Susannah gave Erasmus music lessons and, by the by, came to marry his son Robert, establishing a trend maintained by Charles Darwin when he married his first cousin Emma, the daughter of Josiah (II).

Portland Vase by Wedgewood at the Huntingdon Gallery, San Marino
Portland Vase at the Huntington Gallery, San Marino CA

Wedgwood’s most famous pottery design is the ‘Portland Vase’, a reproduction in Jasper Ware of a piece of (probably) Roman cameo-glassware.  In 2003, something of a controversy blew up regarding the true age of the vase, one which, as this Guardian article explains, science was not able to unravel.

Portland Vases are still being made at Wedgwood but, priced at £4893, are evidently not moving in sufficient quantity to save the business.  When Erasmus received one of the first of these technically challenging pieces, he characteristically proceeded to analyse and document the various Roman scenes; he dedicates 7 pages of text and 4 fold-out drawings to it in his Botanic Garden of  1791.

Update 5 Feb 2012  Wedgewood Museum to close (In the Guardian) Link HERE


Oldest Animal

UK newspaper ‘The Independent’ today featured this spine tingling story about what is probably the world’s oldest animal, and reminding us that man doesn’t hold all the cards – especially when it comes to longevity.

A Galapogos tortoise (photo WikiCommons)

I gave Nippy, the world’s oldest gibbon, a mention earlier this year when he passed away at almost 60 years of age. Now we find there is actual photographic evidence that a giant tortoise from St.Helena has probably lived to more than 175 years. That would make ‘Jonathan’ the world’s oldest living animal.

Of course there are trees and funghi that have lived much longer, but without resorting to the fantasy of Tolkien’s noble ‘Ents’, its not the same thing.

Ancient sequoia……not the same thing (photo WikiCommons)

The last excitement we had in the same vein was the death of the Galapagos tortoise ‘Harriet’, who reached 175 years spot-on, and the accolade she may have owned the oldest eyeballs to have formed an image of the living Charles Darwin.

Dumb Dee Dumb Dee Dumb

Okay – in September I made this little joke about the dumbing down of education standards in the UK; a tension reliever from the continuous and often anecdotal murmur around grade stats going up while exam difficulty goes down.

But the issue is dead serious, as we are reminded today by the Royal Society of Chemistry‘s publication: A wake-up call for science education?

The report describes what happened recently when 1,300 of the nation’s brighter 16 year olds were tested on chemistry exam questions taken from over the last 50 years. The selected questions were of the more mathematical type that test a pupil’s ability to analyse and understand the fundamentals (I think the word ‘hard’ has become politically incorrect), as these are the more useful skills critics say have been fogged out in contemporary tests weighted towards memory.

The report is here, but in a nutshell: the authors say there has been a real and significant reduction in the difficulty of numerical or analytical type questions moving from the 1980’s to the 1990’s, which corresponds to a change in the exam system. UK readers will recognise this transition as the move from a combination of O-Levels (for the ‘brighter’ kids) and CSEs (for the others) to the single GCSE system. Things have stabilised a bit since the transition but, as the authors observe, there are fewer of the analytical type question in the new regime.

What’s more, the average test score on these more analytical questions was only 25%, causing the RSC to call for an urgent increase in this type of question in today’s papers.

Consistent with the authors’ thesis, pupils did least well on multi-step maths oriented problems where there was no prompting of what to do next. Even problems requiring basic maths presented difficulties. Part of the explanation -although its arguably nothing to be proud of – is that some of the more complex content is no longer taught at this level.

In a double whammy that will have the sociologists wetting themselves: the study found that pupils from independent schools (that means private, where typically middle class professional parents pay for their kids’ education ) did significantly better than the state educated pupils; also that boys did better than girls on the hard maths problems. The independent school result is put down in part to the tendency for these schools to teach science as separate subjects – physics, chemistry, biology – and to them having more specialised science teachers (of which there is a chronic national shortage). The authors consider the gender result ‘unusual’.

The final conclusion was that the current system doesn’t recognise the most exceptional students with a wider knowledge of the subject. I think that reflects a tendency to ask only questions the routine solution for which has been taught. Essentially, we have gone from a situation where the teacher gave you a knife with instructions how to carve, to one where the standard tool is a pastry cutter.

What the government will make of this latest grenade lobbed into the mire of UK education policy, we will have to wait and see.

The mainstream press on this story:

from The Independent

from The Guardian

from The Times

from The Telegraph

Also interesting:

This at Amused Cynicism.

And in Telegraph, June 14 2011, this on ‘Pupils Should Study Maths to 18

The Best Environmental Science On TV

On Monday, I joined an awards evening celebrating the best environmental science and technology productions made for European television. The categories were: drama, general programmng, new media, and an extra jury prize for exceptional content.

The MIDAS awards were hosted by PAWS – as the name suggests, a group promoting the public awareness of science. The evening also included a keynote address by Sir David King – until recently the UK’s Chief Scientific advisor, and a related panel discussion on climate change. I’ll share the messages from that in a future post.

On to the award winners. They won’t mean much outside Europe, but at least you can see the themes that are popular.

Best drama award went to the BBC‘s ‘Burn Up’ – which anticipates the lead up to Kyoto 2 in 2009 with a volatile mix of politics, science and big oil.

BBC’s Trailer to Burn Up

Best General Programming went to an edition of the Belgian VRT series Fata Morgana, about getting local people involved in environmental challenges. For four years I lived a stone’s throw away from the VRT TV tower in Brussels and, watching the clip, found the local flavour of this type of programming ‘very Belgian’ – meant in the most complimentary possible way!

Best New Media award went to Germany’s ZDF Interactive for their ‘Consequences of Climate Change’ – a truly interactive production in which viewers can explore the effect of drought and floods by keying in various parameters. This was an excellent use of new media I’m sure we will see much more of. If I can get a link to a clip or screenshots of this, I’ll post it.

The jury special prize went to The Netherland’s VPRO Television and ‘Waste equals Food’, concerned with cradle to grave understanding of products’ impacts on the environment. Examples included Nike’s design of running shoes for optimised recycling, the soles typically reappearing in sports court surfaces.

Drayson’s Sixth Sense

There has been a lot of comment in the last few days about statements made in an interview with Lord Paul Drayson, the new UK science minister, concerning his beliefs around faith, god, and particularly his claim to a ‘sixth sense’ for on occasion knowing what was going to happen.

Science Minister Lord Paul Drayson (Photo WikiCommons)

What I find regrettable is the tone of reporting that might lead some to imply Drayson either claims some supernatural power, or recognises the existence of some such power. Maybe that is what he believes, but there is a difference between having a mind open enough to entertain there being elements of nature operating that we don’t understand but whose effects are manifest in the world, and believing that supernaturalism or man-made mythic influences are at work. I can read his comments either way.

It is no mystery that our subconscious is continually chewing things over in the background of our minds, and taking note of things without us knowing. The product of that sub-conscious analysis appears as our intuition; we suddenly know something without knowing why – magically if you like. So is that where Paul Drayson is coming from? Or what?

It also doesn’t help when the press latch on to Drayson’s references to the ‘magic’ of science. Here for me at least he is clearly talking metaphorically, in the same vein that Einstein and Hawking expressed themselves.

Bum Genes Mean End Of The Line For Iceman

(I ought to add up front that the following is the result of an exercise in a type of sensationalistic reporting characteristic of certain UK tabloids)

Remember the Iceman? Not Maverick’s nemesis from Top Gun, but the 5000 year old Neolithic mummy found in the German Alps back in 1991.


After 17 years of peaking and prodding, Frozen Fritz is out of the freezer and back in the news. This time, Italian scientists working with DNA taken from the Iceman’s rectum have figured out he has no living relatives. A team including Franco Rollo from Camerino University, and Luca Ermini working at Camerino and Leeds University, used the genes in Iceman’s DNA like an identity card; but it turns out nobody today carries anything even similar.