What Is Pokémon Go and Why You Should Care

Nintendo has recently-released the Pokémon Go smartphone game has taken the U.S. by storm, ushering in a new age in gaming and augmented reality.

A picture of Pokemon character Pikachu
A Pokémon called Pikachu

To put it simply, Pokémon Go is a location-based augmented reality game for your smartphone, the first true hit of this genre. It was developed by Niantic, a company under Google's umbrella. Since it was released in the US a week ago, the game has become a cultural and social phenomenon, quickly going viral, rivaling such online stalwarts as Twitter in popularity.

What do you do in this game? You point your smartphone at the world around you and try to catch magical creatures called Pokémon (short for "pocket monster") that seem to appear on the screen. It's an amazing extension of the game space from the screen to the whole of your everyday experience.


The game uses GPS to pinpoint your location and inserts the little monsters into real spaces that you look at through the phone's camera. The game populates the creatures all over your city, with different kinds of Pokémon materializing depending on where you are and the time of the day. This way you have to go to more places to find all the monsters.

The game is actually smart enough to populate your world with the monsters that are location-dependent. For instance, being on a beach would prompt a water-based Pokémon to pop up.

Once you catch them (which requires you to battle them), you can train the Pokémon and make them fight each other. In the game's parlance, this makes you a "trainer". You can also fight other such trainers to give your little monster expanded abilities and to up your ability to find even rarer Pokémon.

Another aspect of the game are PokéStops, which are specific locations in the "real" world that you can see on a map inside the game. Once you go to these places, you can buy (for real money) the game's weapons called Poké Balls and Pokémon-hatching eggs. You can also buy and set up lures that can attract Pokémon to these locations (a technique used by some businesses like cafes to attract hordes of obsessed Pokémon hunters).

To get all the monsters, you need to travel a lot, both day and night.

How popular has the game been? People are looking for Pokémon all over their cities, parks, offices, and even while in Ubers. The game was even used by some enterprising robbers to lure victims.

The Pokémon franchise is owned by Nintendo and already had a viral phase in the late 1990s, when it became wildly popular on the company's handheld consoles, spawning a tv show, movies and trading cards. The tremendous popularity of this new incarnation of the game brought Nintendo's market value up by $9 billion.

The game's amazing spread has caused much attention and scrutiny, including criticism of how it gathers user data, allowing for possible breaches of security. The developers announced that they are working on a patch to fix any such issues.

The game is available for both iOS and Android.

Happy hunting (and watch out for that light pole as you walk glued to your screen)!

A landslide is imminent and so is its tsunami

An open letter predicts that a massive wall of rock is about to plunge into Barry Arm Fjord in Alaska.

Image source: Christian Zimmerman/USGS/Big Think
Surprising Science
  • A remote area visited by tourists and cruises, and home to fishing villages, is about to be visited by a devastating tsunami.
  • A wall of rock exposed by a receding glacier is about crash into the waters below.
  • Glaciers hold such areas together — and when they're gone, bad stuff can be left behind.

The Barry Glacier gives its name to Alaska's Barry Arm Fjord, and a new open letter forecasts trouble ahead.

Thanks to global warming, the glacier has been retreating, so far removing two-thirds of its support for a steep mile-long slope, or scarp, containing perhaps 500 million cubic meters of material. (Think the Hoover Dam times several hundred.) The slope has been moving slowly since 1957, but scientists say it's become an avalanche waiting to happen, maybe within the next year, and likely within 20. When it does come crashing down into the fjord, it could set in motion a frightening tsunami overwhelming the fjord's normally peaceful waters .

"It could happen anytime, but the risk just goes way up as this glacier recedes," says hydrologist Anna Liljedahl of Woods Hole, one of the signatories to the letter.

The Barry Arm Fjord

Camping on the fjord's Black Sand Beach

Image source: Matt Zimmerman

The Barry Arm Fjord is a stretch of water between the Harriman Fjord and the Port Wills Fjord, located at the northwest corner of the well-known Prince William Sound. It's a beautiful area, home to a few hundred people supporting the local fishing industry, and it's also a popular destination for tourists — its Black Sand Beach is one of Alaska's most scenic — and cruise ships.

Not Alaska’s first watery rodeo, but likely the biggest

Image source: whrc.org

There have been at least two similar events in the state's recent history, though not on such a massive scale. On July 9, 1958, an earthquake nearby caused 40 million cubic yards of rock to suddenly slide 2,000 feet down into Lituya Bay, producing a tsunami whose peak waves reportedly reached 1,720 feet in height. By the time the wall of water reached the mouth of the bay, it was still 75 feet high. At Taan Fjord in 2015, a landslide caused a tsunami that crested at 600 feet. Both of these events thankfully occurred in sparsely populated areas, so few fatalities occurred.

The Barry Arm event will be larger than either of these by far.

"This is an enormous slope — the mass that could fail weighs over a billion tonnes," said geologist Dave Petley, speaking to Earther. "The internal structure of that rock mass, which will determine whether it collapses, is very complex. At the moment we don't know enough about it to be able to forecast its future behavior."

Outside of Alaska, on the west coast of Greenland, a landslide-produced tsunami towered 300 feet high, obliterating a fishing village in its path.

What the letter predicts for Barry Arm Fjord

Moving slowly at first...

Image source: whrc.org

"The effects would be especially severe near where the landslide enters the water at the head of Barry Arm. Additionally, areas of shallow water, or low-lying land near the shore, would be in danger even further from the source. A minor failure may not produce significant impacts beyond the inner parts of the fiord, while a complete failure could be destructive throughout Barry Arm, Harriman Fiord, and parts of Port Wells. Our initial results show complex impacts further from the landslide than Barry Arm, with over 30 foot waves in some distant bays, including Whittier."

The discovery of the impeding landslide began with an observation by the sister of geologist Hig Higman of Ground Truth, an organization in Seldovia, Alaska. Artist Valisa Higman was vacationing in the area and sent her brother some photos of worrying fractures she noticed in the slope, taken while she was on a boat cruising the fjord.

Higman confirmed his sister's hunch via available satellite imagery and, digging deeper, found that between 2009 and 2015 the slope had moved 600 feet downhill, leaving a prominent scar.

Ohio State's Chunli Dai unearthed a connection between the movement and the receding of the Barry Glacier. Comparison of the Barry Arm slope with other similar areas, combined with computer modeling of the possible resulting tsunamis, led to the publication of the group's letter.

While the full group of signatories from 14 organizations and institutions has only been working on the situation for a month, the implications were immediately clear. The signers include experts from Ohio State University, the University of Southern California, and the Anchorage and Fairbanks campuses of the University of Alaska.

Once informed of the open letter's contents, the Alaska's Department of Natural Resources immediately released a warning that "an increasingly likely landslide could generate a wave with devastating effects on fishermen and recreationalists."

How do you prepare for something like this?

Image source: whrc.org

The obvious question is what can be done to prepare for the landslide and tsunami? For one thing, there's more to understand about the upcoming event, and the researchers lay out their plan in the letter:

"To inform and refine hazard mitigation efforts, we would like to pursue several lines of investigation: Detect changes in the slope that might forewarn of a landslide, better understand what could trigger a landslide, and refine tsunami model projections. By mapping the landslide and nearby terrain, both above and below sea level, we can more accurately determine the basic physical dimensions of the landslide. This can be paired with GPS and seismic measurements made over time to see how the slope responds to changes in the glacier and to events like rainstorms and earthquakes. Field and satellite data can support near-real time hazard monitoring, while computer models of landslide and tsunami scenarios can help identify specific places that are most at risk."

In the letter, the authors reached out to those living in and visiting the area, asking, "What specific questions are most important to you?" and "What could be done to reduce the danger to people who want to visit or work in Barry Arm?" They also invited locals to let them know about any changes, including even small rock-falls and landslides.

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A scene from the 1996 Tim Burton film "Mars Attacks!"

Credit: "Mars Attacks!" / Warner Bros
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