Language Gamification: Bullshit vs Bullshit

Gamification may be bullshit, but does that mean it might be just the tool to fight your own, personal brand of bullshit?

Screenshot of Duolingo

Learning foreign languages is hard. Really hard. Part of this has to do with complex neurological reasons, which can only be explained using words like neuroplasticity and monolinguals. Yes, some of the difficulty is hard-wired. But additionally, a part of you just doesn’t like learning foreign languages. It’s complicated and easy to forget, requires a lot of memorization, and you can still sound like an idiot after years of practice. Sometimes the linguistic variations are impossible to pronounce or hear, or the grammatical structures are completely foreign to your mental processes. So you make up bullshit: reasons to skip or skimp on practice, or give up altogether. Learning a foreign language is a constant battle against your lazier self.

Duolingo logo

But Duolingo, a site I’ve recently come to frequent, changes the game, so to speak. It gamifies the process of learning a foreign language, adding daily goals, streaks of meeting your daily goal, unlocking mechanics, currency and purchasing, and total progress towards fluency. Now, it’s not a particularly good way of learning a language. In fact, it’s terrible at teaching. But really, teaching isn’t the point of Duolingo. It’s just a way of defeating your bullshit by replacing it with a more benign type of bullshit.

Duolingo assigns tangible, meaningless progression to the real, intangible progress of learning a language. Without Duolingo as a external, concrete arbiter that says “Yes you are getting better”, learning a language can feel hopeless because no matter how much you master it, there are always more words to learn, faster sentences to parse, and structures you don’t understand. Now, the “percent fluency” that Duolingo feeds you doesn’t necessarily correspond to any real gains, but it affirms that the hard mental work you put in today actually paid off in some continuing educational journey. And that affirmation is what makes you come back the next day to learn more.

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What Really Matters

In these days of turmoil after the undoubtedly historic decision in Obergefell v. Hodges, whether you agree or disagree with the decision, either on legal or on moral grounds, it is important to keep one thing in mind. As a citizen of the United States, you have implicitly given yourself over to the secular, democratic law of the land. Yes, you could spend time fighting a presumable majority on this issue. Honestly, this amounts to a minor change in what should be a secularized bureaucracy, as legal “marriage” extends to medical, employment, tax, housing, legal realms, which should all be free of the effects of one contentious moral system in a country that prides itself on freedom of religion and so forth. The legal ramifications of the decision may also be troubling to you.

However, none of this matters. Seriously. The best we can hope for is that this decision will put to bed another of the various debates that have been distracting us from the real problems. Global warming, unregulated AI advancements, nuclear proliferation. Extreme biochemical engineering. Massive overpopulation. Unregulated nanotechnology. Space exploration and expansion policy. There are a huge number of threats in the near future which have the potential to wipe human civilization clean off the map. We need to make efforts NOW to make our civilization resilient to threats, and set ourselves up for long-term survival. We need to stop squabbling over social policies that honestly don’t matter all that much, and focus on the huge number of never-before-faced global issues before it is too late.

After all, stopping everyone from being wiped out by grey goo is the first step in evangelism.

Going Nowhere on the Information Superhighway

More than 50% of people die within 30 miles of where they were born. Even though America has a well-maintained highway system that spans the continent, most people don’t randomly pack up from their home town and go on a road trip to the opposite side of the country. And so it is with the virtual world. Before the Internet, information was highly segregated geographically. The farther you were from a source of information, the longer it took to reach you, and the more you had to go out of your way to consume it. This was the result of both the technology and the media networks that existed.

The Internet was supposed to revolutionize the way information moved. The so-called information super-highway would advance digital transit in the same way the Interstate Highway System did in the 1950’s. But just like the real highway system, the Internet hasn’t caused a mass exodus of ordinary bitizens. In this analogy, the reason is painfully obvious. It takes a huge amount of effort to leave your Internet communities and travel to another place where the dialect or even language is different. And to what gain?

These barriers to information cross-pollination result in an Internet that experiences de facto segregation along cultural boundaries. This division is no less real than the geographic segregation experienced by human populations in the real world. A TED talk by Ethan Zuckerman explores the vast sections of Twitter you may not even be aware existed; huge parts of Twitter are occupied by Brazilians and by African Americans, but if you are a caucasian American, you’ve probably never interacted with that side of Twitter. Even in the information age, we still consume the media closest to us. Yet this is even more dangerous, because the ease of information transfer lulls us into thinking that we are getting a cosmopolitan viewpoint, when in fact we are stuck in the middle of an echo chamber.

This is why it is so hard for people to branch out and become informed about subjects they don’t believe they are interested in. Be it international politics, scientific advances, or social justice debates, people often sit back and consume their news from whatever source is most familiar and convenient. The result is that I am woefully uninformed about the geopolitical situation in Africa, and the general public is woefully uninformed about anything related to space exploration. Then again, you don’t see me going out and reading up on African conflicts, so I don’t blame anyone for having a spotty knowledge base.

Introduction to Programming

Taking an introductory programming course this semester has been an interesting experience. Since I grasp the course material well, I’ve spent some time helping others with their work. As anyone who has taught math can attest, teaching even basic concepts requires you to understand the material far better than the student must. When it comes to programming, helping people is even more difficult because you can’t just tell them how to do it. You need to let them to figure it out on their own, otherwise they won’t have learned anything.

But leading someone along without explicitly telling them anything is really, REALLY difficult. Our professor is a master at this, and I respect him deeply because of it. A student will ask a question, and the professor will reply with an oblique statement that doesn’t seem to address the student’s question at all. Yet soon enough the student says “Oh! I get it!” and goes on their merry way. I try as hard as possible to emulate this method when I help those who are struggling, but it is nigh impossible to strike the correct balance. Help them too much, and they don’t learn. Help them too little, and they despair or begin to resent programming. And as much as I don’t like seeing it happen, many of the people in the class have come to resent programming.

This is as sad as a student resenting literature because of a bad English class experience, or resenting math because of a bad math teacher. Yet I don’t fully understand how to prevent it. If there was a good, standardized methodology for teaching difficult concepts without causing students to resent the field, I feel a lot of the problems in society today could be solved. Maybe that is just wishful thinking, though.

The second interesting observation from taking this class has come from observing a peer. The first language she learned was Python, and learning C++ this semester has caused some distress. There were many lamentations along the lines of “why is the computer so dumb?!” Of course, I found this hilarious because it mirrors a situation in the novel A Fire Upon the Deep. As the protagonists head towards the bottom of the Beyond, much of their advanced computer technology stops working, and they are forced to adopt more primitive methods. Needless to say, the characters who grew up with the advanced technology are indignant that they are forced to use such primitive technologies as a keyboard. Meanwhile, the character who grew up using primitive technology merely smiles.

In my mind, this helps clear up the argument of whether new students to the art of programming should be started on a high-level language, or a low-level language. Until such time as low-level programming is never needed except in rare circumstances, students should be started at a medium-to-low level. For example, it is easier to step up to Python from Java than it is to step down. I was originally of the mind that new students should start at a high-level as to learn common computing concepts without getting bogged down in obtuse technicalities and syntax, but getting a first-hand view of the results of such an approach has changed my mind.

The Other N-word

Nuclear.

The US public is split nearly 50/50 between those who favor nuclear power and those who don’t. Because of this, nuclear is often a dirty word in the political arena. Nobody wants to lose half their constituency over a marginal issue like nuclear power. Before 1979, the political climate was ripe for the rapid expansion of nuclear power. However, the Three Mile Island accident resulted in the cancellation of most new nuclear plant projects. 30 years later, the public was just starting to warm up to the idea of nuclear as part of the so-called “nuclear renaissance.” Then, in a case of incredibly poor timing, the Fukushima disaster struck.

There is a lot of weird cultural weight attached to the “N-word”, not the least due to an entire generation being psychologically scarred by the perceived overhanging threat of nuclear war. Unfortunately, this snubs one of humanity’s greatest hopes for survival.

Nuclear might not be cost-effective as geothermal, wind, or hydro power. It also isn’t as clean as solar. However, I would argue that neither cost-effectiveness nor cleanliness displaces nuclear from being the best “clean” energy source available. And not only would widespread adoption of nuclear energy entirely solve the climate crisis, it would save humanity from eventual extinction by hastening our spread through the universe.

As I see it, the only other power source that is as scalable as nuclear is solar. Solar, however, loses out on two counts. First, it is really expensive compared to, like, any other power source. Second, the energy density of solar is really, really low. We would need to cover 496,805 square kilometers of area with solar panels to satisfy the world’s projected energy consumption in 2030. While the price of solar power has really come down, that’s also in part due to subsidized research. On the other hand, nuclear has a much higher power density, and despite years of marginalization, is still competitive with current cutting-edge solar power. It is also extremely reliable, with fluctuations in power output virtually non-existent. This is something other forms of renewable energy lack.

If we started investing in nuclear research, we could dramatically lower the costs of nuclear power and satisfy a huge portion of the world’s energy demands. Cheap electricity would hasten the wide-spread use of electric cars (okay, this would probably happen anyways). With combustion cars and both natural gas and coal plants replaced, the influx of greenhouse gases into the environment would be greatly reduced. Cheap, portable reactors would allow developing countries to get on their feet in terms of manufacturing capability. Cheap energy would allow us to implement energy-intensive climate engineering schemes. Advanced nuclear technology would lead to the development of closed-core nuclear rockets, allowing safe, clean, and cheap access to space. Portable reactors would jump-start unmanned planetary exploration, interstellar exploration, human colonization, and asteroid mining.

Of course, none of this will happen. Nuclear is still a dirty word, burdened by the historical and cultural baggage it must drag around. The first step to a better, cleaner future is to get the public to accept nuclear power. As long as we are afraid to say the word, we are holding ourselves back from achieving our full potential.

The Community-Driven Game

Imagine you are driving a car, and you have three of your misanthropic friends in the back. Suddenly they lean forwards and ask if they can help steer. You think this might be a bad idea, but before you can react they clamber forwards and put their hands on the wheel. Most people would at this point judge the situation as “not a good idea”.

Replace your annoying friends with the Internet (uh oh), and replace the car with an indie game. Congratulations, you have just created the perfect environment for a terrible game to develop. Actually, often times the situation only gets as far as the Internet playing backseat driver, yelling out confusing and contradicting directions that are both useless and hard to ignore. But for a game like KSP, the community has leapt into the passenger seat and nearly wrested controls from the developer.

The developers of KSP are driving towards a cliff of not-fun. They could probably make a good game that stood on it’s own and appealed to a certain audience if left to their own devices. However, because the early prototypes of the game drew such a diverse crowd, the fans want the game to head in a couple of conflicting directions. Few people share a common vision for the game, and a lot of people like to play armchair game designer.

I honestly think some of the more prolific modders in the community have been taking the game in a more suitable direction. Meanwhile, the community quibbles over what should be included in the stock game and what shouldn’t. I want to take one of my biggest peeves as a case study:

One of the most touted arguments against certain large features is that the feature merely adds another level of complexity without adding any “true gameplay”. For example,

  • Life Support would just mean another thing to worry about, and it would reduce the amount of shenanigans you can do (stranding Kerbals on planets for years, etc).
  • Living Room/Sanity mechanics? Nope, it would just be a hassle. You have to bring up bigger habitats any time you want to send a mission to somewhere far away. It doesn’t add any gameplay during the mission.
  • Reentry heating? That just restricts craft designs, making people conform to certain designs and plan around reentry.
  • Different fuel types? Too complex, requires a lot of learning and planning before hand, and only restricts your options during a mission (again, restricting shenanigans).
  • Realistic reaction wheels that don’t provide overwhelming amounts of torque and require angular momentum to be bled off with a reaction system periodically? Could prove to be annoying during a critical part of a mission if you hit max angular momentum. Requires you to put in a reaction system even if you only want to rotate your craft (not translate).

Do you see the problem with these arguments? You are arguing that something shouldn’t be added to the game because it adds gameplay that isn’t in the game right now. See how circular and pointless the argument is? The worst part is that it could be extended to basically any part of the game that exists right now.

  • Electric charge? What if you run out of charge during a critical maneuver, or go behind the dark side of the planet. It’s A GAME, we shouldn’t have to worry about whether or not the craft is receiving light. Just assume they have large batteries.
  • Different engine types? That would add too much planning, and just limits the performance of the craft. What if I need to take off, but my thrust is too low to get off the ground? That wouldn’t be very fun.
  • Taking different scientific readings? That sounds like it would be pretty tedious. You shouldn’t add something that is just going to be grinding. The game doesn’t have to be realistic, just fun.
  • A tech tree? Why restrict players from using certain parts? What if they want to use those parts? You shouldn’t restrict parts of the game just so the player has to play to unlock them. That doesn’t accomplish anything.

Hell, why even have a game in the first place? It sounds like a lot of thinking and planning and micromanagement and grinding.

Of course, this could be considered reductio ad absurdum, but the problem is that it actually isn’t. The arguments against Life Support or different fuel types or reentry heating just don’t hold any water. Yet people hate against them, so the developers are less likely to put them in the game. Since I started with a metaphor, I’ll end with one:

The developers of KSP are driving towards a cliff because the community told them to. Fortunately, they realized it and are now putting on the brakes. In response, the community is shouting “why are you putting on the brakes? That only slows the car down!” To which I reply, “yes, yes it does.”

Interstellar: First Impressions

Don’t worry, I haven’t come here to moan about scientific inaccuracies. In fact, I’m here to analyze why I liked Interstellar in spite of it’s inaccuracies. And boy were there problems with this movie. There were bits that felt way off key, like the exploration of love as a transcendent metaphysical bond. There were moments when I was jarred from immersion, such as the Endurance falling out of orbit when Mann crashed the Ranger into it, or the frivolous astrogation (“If we slingshot around this neutron star here…”), or LITERALLY EVERYTHING ABOUT THE BLACK HOLE.

Honestly, Interstellar does one type of science fiction well – using speculative science and technology as a foil for exploring contemporary issues (like the changing of textbooks to say the moon missions were faked. That was an interesting addition). For the first half of the movie, I thought it was pretty hard sci-fi, but I eventually realized it was a little bit softer; overall, it fell somewhere between Star Trek and 2001 (I know, not a very helpful range). So my intense desire for scientific accuracy fell by the wayside.

It focuses on a wide range of topics: man’s relationship with nature, the need for an exploratory drive (and the fragility of that same drive as a cultural artifact), the nature of time in human relationships, and unfortunately something about love and gravity. Because it hit this wide range of topics, it seemed a little unfocused, although the movie was long enough to say something meaningful about each.

I might be giving the movie a more generous pass because it looked and felt fantastic. The range of sound was stupendous, and the use of sound was spot on. The movie does not twist itself for sound, sound plays to the movie. What do I mean by this? The rumble of the engines overpowers dialogue, non-diegetic sound abruptly cuts off with the end of a transmission, and Matt Damon gets blown up mid-sentence. And, of course, external shots of the spacecraft have no sound, and inside the spacecraft you can hear the thump of the thrusters. I was a little disappointed at how quite the inside was when the engine were off, though. By all accounts, space habitats are quite loud due to the constant fans and other machinery that make the space livable.

I feel like much of the movie walked the line between freaking awesome and too unrealistic. For instance, the giant waves on the first planet. Sure, there were huge tidal forces. But aren’t waves formed by wind, not tides? Also, why wasn’t there a huge back current in the spaces between them? Whatever, this is a severe case of Fridge Logic. Oh and the bit where everyone died from the black hole’s radiation and tidal forces (hint, this didn’t actually happen). I enjoyed all the graphics of the spacecraft though, and I found it very interesting to be able to identify what elements came from where (both actual and concept designs).

The biggest part of the movie that was completely unrealistic was the black hole, but this is OK. One of the points of speculative fiction is to change one thing about the universe and see how it plays out. In the case of Interstellar, the change was that gravity is actually magic. Basically. So you can’t fault them for having a magical black hole.

But the ending was very awesome, although I almost died from the whiplash. Like 2001, the movie just suddenly decided to go all trippy on us. Which I didn’t mind. I totally saw the whole “the 5th dimensional beings are actually transcended humans from the future” thing coming though. I also have a kickass theory about that part: the robot talking to Connors in the black is actually the 5th dimensional humans communicating with him, not the robot.

Ultimately the best way to describe Interstellar is that Gravity and Inception had a baby, and it didn’t inherit the awful movie gene from Gravity. So go see it.

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