On Twine, space mirrors, and the joys of making pointless shit


Monday, Jun. 01, 2020

Sam Beckbessinger (Writer)

This guest post by writer Sam Beckbessinger is reprinted with kind permission from her personal blog. Sam is a participant in a collaborative project titled “New Scenarios and Models for Climate Engineering” outlined here. The project is co-led by Simon Nicholson of FCEA and Chris Trisos (visit the homepage for Chris’ lab here).

Here’s a fun bit of trivia: did you know that one of the serious ideas that scientists are discussing to slow the progress of climate change is to put a fleet of mirrors into orbit around the earth, to reflect sunlight away from the planet?

Last year, I attended a conference in Annapolis about climate engineering. It was organized by the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC) – an academic group that tries to get different kinds of scientists to talk to each other about what they’re learning in their different fields of research, and how it applies to climate change (like a singles mixer for ideas). They’re specifically interested in how the things humans do (politics, economics, culture) interact with how the climate system works.

We were talking about geoengineering, which means large-scale projects we might try to directly slow down or reverse climate change. The ideas for this fall into two major areas, which I’ll foolishly attempt to summarize for you despite being EXTREMELY not a scientist.

  1. Carbon capture. The earth got hot because we took a lot of the carbon that was stored under the ground in the form of coal and oil, and we burnt it so that all that energy ended up in the atmosphere, where it turned the air into a giant pizza oven that radiates the heat back onto the planet. Carbon capture means trying to pull those “greenhouse gasses” out of the atmosphere and stick them back in the ground. Major ideas around this include quite wholesome stuff like growing more plants (e.g. replanting trees across the Sahara desert, farming kelp in the ocean) and very high-tech stuff like building machines that could  suck carbon out of the atmosphere and turn it into a liquid that we could store in the ground again.
  2. Solar radiation management. This literally means that we make the earth more shiny, so that more of the sunlight is reflected away from the planet. No, I’m serious! You know how if you wear a white t-shirt on a hot day, you stay cooler than if you wore a black t-shirt? Same idea. If we could make the earth shinier, we could reflect more sunlight away from the planet and bring temperatures down. Things we could make shiny include the clouds above the ocean (by having ships constantly spraying ocean water up into the air), the upper atmosphere (having jets constantly circling the earth spraying a shiny aerosole) or the whole planet (with the swarm of space mirrors). Why scientists called this “Solar Radiation Management” rather than “The Planetary Sparkle Project” I’ll never understand.

Look, that’s a quick explanation based on vague memories of stuff I heard about a year ago. If you want to read an actually fact-checked article on this, here’s a helpful explainer.

There were three writers at this conference. Our job was to help the scientists take their models and simulations and think about how they could tell a story about what the future might look like. Because geoengineering might be wonderful: it might buy us some more time to wean ourselves off fossil fuels or help us restore some of the most badly-affected areas like coral-reefs… but it also might accidentally end the entire human race.

A photograph of a ruined city in an ice age
Solar Radiation Management was what triggered the fictional ice-age in Snowpiercer.

We were working in groups, and our group was asked to consider how these geoengineering technologies might interact with socio-political forces like a universal basic income and xenophobia.

And it felt like the best way to do that – in this very serious conference with very serious science people – was by making a Choose Your Own Adventure Story!

Covers of Choose Your Own Adventure Books

Did you ever read these things? You could make choices in the story, and then you’d turn to page 5 if you did one thing or page 6 if you did the other thing, and there were many different ways the story could turn out. Oh man, I was obsessed as a kid.

Making Choose Your Own Adventure Stories today is super easy. I use a free app called Twine. You just write the little passages and connect them to each other with choices. It looks like chaos-spaghetti.

A screenshot from Twine
This is what our geoengineering story looked like in Twine.

But then you export it and it comes out as a lovely web page, with links, that you can play with your friends or put on the internet.

A screenshot of the geoengineering story in playable form
This was a page from our geoengineering story exported.

If you’re curious, you can play through our whole silly game here, but it was never intended to be shared with anyone. It was created in one day at the conference. It’s full of in-jokes: someone made a joke about Bruce Willis being a climate terrorist that got completely out of hand, so you’ll see that all the storylines culminate in Bruce Willis gifs. I don’t know what to tell you. It was hilarious at the time.

And I think there’s a lesson in here about the joys of making pointless shit.

I make truly terrible video games for fun, sometimes. I once made a game with my friend Bridget where you throw bloody tampons at Donald Trump’s face (this was just after his “blood coming out of her… wherever” comments and we were MAD). I made this Twine game to try to describe how weird it feels to try to go to the shops when you’ve taken too much LSD.

These games are terrible! I am never going to make a shred of money from them. I’m never going to pivot my career into becoming a game developer or change the world by making games about Bruce Willis. I just made them because they were fun, using beginner skills I learned over just a few days.

But do you know what: sitting in that room with those incredible scientists making jokes about what would happen if Russia decided to use solar radiation management to take advantage of a boom in beach tourism, actually sparked some pretty insightful ideas. It led to conversations about how national protectionism would make it harder to co-ordinate a global geoengineering response, and how city pacts might bypass national governments completely. Joking about Bruce Willis got us talking about how dangerous solar radiation could be during a world war. Apparently some of them are writing academic papers about it now.

Resist the voices that tell you be serious and focus on your “core skills” and only ever spend time learning things that will help you advance your career. It apparently takes 10,000 hours to master a skill, but you can learn the basics of almost anything over just a couple of days.

And there is such joy and liberation at practicing skills you’re terrible at, that are not your job, where you can be a complete beginner. So mess around. Paint things, even if it’s impossible to tell what they are. Build a wonky camera obscura. Make a terrible video game and share it on Itch.io. Watch some YouTube videos about whittling. It doesn’t matter if you’re too old to every be a professional guitarist: if you want to learn guitar, learn the damn guitar. Be adorably terrible at playing the guitar, and play songs for your family and make them smile.

Who knows? Maybe one day those skills will come in handy in surprising ways. And even if they don’t, I promise they’ll make your life richer.

Wishing you adventures of your own choosing,

Your friend Sam.

About the author:

Sam Beckbessinger has spent most of the past decade building apps and tools to help regular people manage their money. Her bestselling book, Manage Your Money Like a F*cking Grown-up, is now sold in five countries, and was the overall winner of 2019 SA Book Award. Sam also writes fiction. Her short story credits include “Blinding Birds” (The Cardiff Review, 2017) and “This Book Will Find You” (The Outcast Hours, Solaris Press, 2019), co-written with Lauren Beukes and Dale Halvorsen.

She has written several episodes for animated kids’ TV show, Team Jay, commissioned by the Juventus Soccer Club and produced and animated by Sunrise Productions, due to air in late 2019, and is currently writing on the family-friendly comedy series Jungle Beat, which has been broadcast in over 180 countries on channels including Cartoon Network and Nickelodeon.

Sam was a Mandela Washington Fellow for Young African Leaders at Yale University in 2014 where she got to high-five Barack Obama (true story), and is a partner and co-founder of two financial technology businesses based in Cape Town, South Africa.

And she is co-writing Magpies, a mystery-suspense novel about missing girls who come back, changed, together with Dale Halvorsen.