Stop Wasting My Time

I haven’t written in a while here, but there’s nothing like a good, old-fashioned rant to get back into the swing of things.

I recently saw this article pop up on my Facebook feed. I have to say, it was very disappointing to read.

I mean, seriously? You’re going to waste my time with this bullshit? There are legitimate things to criticize about Christianity; this is not one of those. According to the fevered logic of the article, the fact that the Bible went through the process of translation, the Bible is made up. That’s basically what it comes down to.

To explain more thoroughly, researchers recently found a draft of a translation of some of the apocryphal books in English for the King James Bible. That’s it. So apparently the fact that God didn’t come down and tell scholars how to translate it into English means that the Bible isn’t the divine word of God. I guess it was written by a committee of Jews or something?

The hivemind has taken over at this point: every half-witted Internet denizen and his dog want to take jabs at religion, because it’s the hip thing to do. But this is just sad. This smells of a writer with an IQ of 90 and a looming deadline. This is like learning that Obama isn’t legally allowed to run for a third term in the 2016 election, then turning around and questioning why he was ever allowed to run for office in the first place in that case.

It’s a non-sequitur that is both hilarious and sad, and really says something about the state of the media and information dispersal in this day and age.

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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.

I’m Not Part of that Generation

There is something that really irks me. People have this tendency to assume that kids are ignorant when it comes to “older technologies”. This is akin to assuming that anyone of non-Caucasian ethnicity is a recent immigrant. Please don’t assume I don’t know what a landline is. I’m 17, but I’m sure this applies to younger kids.

Here is a list of the most common ones:

  • Records: I have a friend who owns a record player and shops at record stores.
  • VHS tapes: My childhood memories include watching movies on VHS. I still own VHS tapes and a VHS player.
  • CDs: Really? This is not an outdated technology.
  • Floppy disks: Again, I can remember using floppy disks, and it wasn’t that long ago.
  • Landlines: Everyone I know has a landline.
  • Manual transmissions: I have a friend who recently bought a new car with a manual transmission. He prefers them.
  • Dialup: I can’t speak for everyone, but I’ve used dialup before.
  • Dedicated flip phones: Some of my friends still use those.
  • Cassette tapes: Most cars still have tape players, and most people probably have a selection of tapes sitting around somewhere.
  • Life before the mainstream Internet: I was there.
  • Radio: NOT AN OUTDATED TECHNOLOGY.
  • Books: Stop that.

So, for the sake of everyone, please don’t immediately assume a kid doesn’t know what a given technology is. Maybe they don’t, but it’s offensive either way.

Using Games to Educate

In the last few years we’ve seen the Internet playing a larger and larger role in education. Everyone seems to expect a revolution in education within 20 years. It’s possible, although I don’t think it will come from the direction that everyone thinks it will (see my post on online education). I want to give my two cents about an ancillary approach: videogames. Games don’t have to teach the students anything. In fact, I think they are much more useful as vehicles for the education. Games provide a background, a context, for new knowledge. For example, playing Deus Ex: Human Revolution (play chapters of a game as homework instead of reading chapters of a book?) could help spark discussion about the current situation of computers, implants, artificial intelligence, politics, etc. The experiences within the game outside of the lesson help students stay interested and apply the knowledge, even if subconsciously, beyond the classroom.

I’m going to focus on two games: Kerbal Space Program and Minecraft. Prmrytchr has a whole blog on using Minecraft (as well as other games) in the classroom, so I’m going to focus on the technical aspects.

the KSP splash

Kerbal Space Program (KSP) is an indie game currently under development with an open alpha available for purchase. In the game, you run the space agency of a particularly derpy alien race in their Sol-like system. In sandbox mode, you can throw together rockets, probes, rovers, space stations, planes, and planetary bases from a wide assortment of parts. Then you launch your constructions and control them to the best of your abilities.

KSP Screenshot KSP Screenshot 2

While hard to grasp at first, the game is incredibly fun. You do need a rudimentary understanding of kinematics to play well. This is the first step in its ability to act as an educational tool. While you can strap an engine onto a fuel tank and try to fly it, you quickly realize that doing anything impressive — such as putting an object in orbit — requires a bit of education. While you could watch tutorials, you could also get a lesson about basic kinematics and orbital mechanics from a present teacher. There’s an opportunity for lessons on engineering, as well.

As students become more proficient, more complex opportunities open up to them. Orbital rendezvous and gravitational slingshots get more involved physically. Spacecraft design, between mass conservation, fuel-mass ratio, reaction thruster placement, and properties of engines, is a great opportunity for springboarding into other physics. Other elements of spacecraft design that aren’t simulated in KSP, such as heat management, enter the realm of thermodynamics. Ancillary topics that arise when discussing space exploration can involve relativity and electromagnetic waves.

minecraft splashMinecraft, on the other hand, is about as physically unrealistic as you can get. However, it provides an awesome way to teach logic and economics. Even vanilla Minecraft has a growing arsenal of parts which allow rudimentary (or not so rudimentary) automation. Redstone is a powerful tool for doing any sort of logical manipulation — or teaching it. Watching your toolbox of gates and mechanisms grow out of a few basic ground rules is amazing. Creative minds are pushed to imagining new ways of using redstone, pistons, minecarts, and all the other machines being added in. While I’m not a fan, mods like Technic or Tekkit expand the array of basic parts at your disposal.

Multiplayer in Minecraft is an interesting case study of economic theory. Because the system varies so much from the real world, it provides an outside perspective on traditional economic theory. As you teach the basics of microeconomics, you can analyze why Minecraft’s multiplayer economy and identify how to restrict it. The ultimate goal of the class could be to establish a working economic system on a Minecraft server (perhaps through plugins/mods?).

Redstone Schematic Redstone Screenshot

Whether or not any of these are good ideas, it illuminates how games don’t have to be the primary vehicle of learning to be a useful educational tool. Games can merely be a springboard, a point of reference from which lessons emerge. The game keeps the students interested and grounded in the topic, while providing a useful outlet and vector of fortification for the knowledge they are getting in class.

A Forum for Original Thought

Nowadays, people hunger for original analyses and theses. Their pangs are reflected in the popularity of video series like The Idea Channel, Extra Credits, The Big Picture, and TED talks. Essentially, these are just spoken essays and presentations. They don’t really utilize the video medium, other than by coupling speech with a slideshow of images and (occasionally) video clips. Yet more and more these videos are supplementing written forms like blogs and columns. The intersection of unquenchable desire for consumable media (i.e. videos) and a veritable drought of mental stimulation makes spoken essays a desirable form of idea transmission.

Perhaps the number of quick-fact “educational” videos (e.g. Minute Physics, Smarter Every Day, CGPgrey, Vsauce, numberphile) stimulated the Internet’s interest in science. Indeed, there seems to be a vibe coursing through the tubes that “science is cool”, even if the way science is taught in schools isn’t. The realization that the scientific realm, learning, and, more generally, intelligent thought can be interesting has made people desire an influx of original analysis. It stimulates the brain, giving way to more thought in a way that other media has (mostly) failed to do.

In a world with an endless volume of consumable content, our brains may have become starved. Long periods of rumination can be painful and boring, so we flood it with cheap, throwaway media. Yet these times of inward reflection may serve an important purpose. Unfortunately, our over-stimulation by Internet videos, TV, movies, video games, and music has left us unable to focus on content-delivery platforms like text. We thirst for mental stimulation, yet cannot bear to gain it by taking a step backwards. This conundrum gave rise to the popularity of “spoken essays”. They inject creative, original thought quickly and painlessly. As we mull over this gem, we can further explore the subject in the video comments. Such discussion is evidenced by the considerable quality of comments on the aforementioned videos. Trolls, raging arguments over politics and religion, and insults have given way to (somewhat) thoughtful debates about the video’s analysis. Occasionally the next video in the series might make mention of some interesting points or surprising overall consensus concerning the previous video.

But is the classroom going extinct as a forum for intelligent discussion? Does it have a place in the furious online world? Perhaps. Although quick-fact videos give information, they very rarely delve into the depths of the subject and explain it in a way that lets the viewer solve entirely new problems on their own. They give the information top-soil, but hold back any sort of theoretical bedrock. A viewer might come out feeling smarter, but she will not have gained any tools in her arsenal of critical analysis and problem solving. This is partially due to the medium. Spending a longer amount of time to explore the subject drives off the initial appeal of the videos: quick learning.

However, some video series manage to seriously teach a subject while staying interesting. Crash Course has series on biology, literature, ecology, US history, and world history, served up by the eponymous vlogbrothers. They don’t necessarily go into the same depth that a yearlong course would, but that’s not really a problem here (it’s called “Crash Course” for a reason). The fact that dozens of videos are being spent exploring one subject is a start. Another faux-classroom video venue is Udacity. Udacity is a different beast; it is much more of an exploration into online courses than Crash Course. The physical classroom is woefully unfit to teach computer science. Udacity takes a stab at creating a classroom environment that takes advantage of its medium to deliver a more fitting CS education to a much greater volume of people, while still keeping a basic academic form.

Ultimately, I see a rise in the popularity of systems like Udacity, as well as series like Extra Credits and The Idea Channel. If educators want to truly grab the interest of new generations, they need to examine that which is already capturing attention. Rather than lamenting the advent of consumable, throwaway media, embrace it. There is a place for education in online videos and video games.

Snow Crash

Oh. Yes. I am going to start off this post by talking about the absolutely brilliant book by Neal Stephenson (see Cryptonomicon), Snow Crash. The book that popularized the use of the word “avatar” as it applies to the Web and gaming. The book that inspired Google Earth. And despite being 20 years old, it is more relevant than ever and uses the cyberpunk theme to hilarious and thought-provoking extents. It paints the picture of an Internet/MMO mashup, sort of like Second Life, based in a franchised world. Governments have split up and been replaced in function by companies; competing highway companies set up snipers where their road systems cross, military companies bid for retired aircraft carriers, and inflation has caused trillion dollar bills to become nigh worthless.

In the book, a katana-wielding freelance hacker named Hiro Protagonist follows a trail of mysterious clues and eventually discovers a plot to infect people with an ancient Sumerian linguistic virus. The entire book is bizarre, but it has some great concepts and is absolutely entertaining. Stephenson never fails to tell a great story; his only problem is wrapping them up. Anyways, I highly suggest you read it.

Well, I’ve been thinking about games again. I have two great ideas in the works, and one of them is “hacking” game based roughly in the Snow Crash universe. It doesn’t really use any of the unique concepts from it besides the general post-fall world setting and things like the Central Intelligence Corporation. It probably won’t even use the Metaverse, although it depends how much I choose to expand the game from the core concept. The player does play, however, as a freelance hacker who may or may not wield swords (not that it matters, since you probably won’t be doing any running around).

I’m writing up a Project Design Document which will cover all the important points of the game:
Download the whole document

RPCreate: The Website

I apologize for the recent set of more technical posts. Then again, I guess I’m not that repentant, since this is going to be of the same breed. I was told that to attract an audience I have to focus on a certain subject; I’d rather that subject be me. Perhaps I’m just going through a technical phase… Next post won’t be technical though, just generally nerdy.

After learning how to use the basics of Google AppEngine, I’m ready to create a full-fledged website for my own purposes. It will be a clever conglomeration of some of the projects I’ve been wanting to do. These are, by name, a wiki, a forum (bulletin board), and a hub site for RPCreate. RPCreate is, of course, my new idea for a Minecraft server. I wrote a post about it not long ago. It needs a strong site to support the community, and I feel like a free forum and free wiki are not enough; not only are they missing a critical piece, the main homepage, but having the services separate and externally hosted also means I can’t implement custom features that would really help with creating a strong community.

The main front page would be largely static, with only occasional major announcements and also portals to the wiki and forum. It could also have feeds from both sites, proving an easy way to check up on the latest activity. The server would also interface with the Minecraft server, allowing server status (online/offline, players, etc) to be displayed in a banner across all the pages (in the wiki, forum, and hub).

Another bonus of consolidating online resources is that the site can have a single user database that works for the wiki AND forum, so you can view recent activity from a single profile page and track karma/helpfulness across the entire community. In addition, it would facilitate the fight against griefers, spammers, and other mischief makers. Banned or misbehaving players could have recent hurtful activity reverted with a single click. In terms of helpful utilities, setting up a system for emailing notification of server events (like steam community groups), or emailing players that haven’t logged onto the server in a while, would be trivial.

A free service like Google AppEngine would suffice, and if I posted banner ads then the revenue could be spent on something like a text notification service or a real domain name. I also like AppEngine because it uses Python to generate the entire response, so you can do whatever you like behind the scenes, unlike PHP. You can even map multiple directories to a single function, or generate dynamic directories. Because of this huge flexibility, I figure a Python-based web application would be the best choice for interfacing with another server, like a Minecraft server. PHP either doesn’t have that kind of capability or it’s too difficult to figure out for a lazy bum like me.

This entire website would also act as a springboard into other web applications I have planned. Once I have this under my belt (because I don’t pretend to be experienced in website creation), I can move on to ambitious, revenue-generating projects. I would talk about them here, but they might get stolen…

Eh, I’ll probably go over them in another post. Stay tuned, and subscribe to my RSS feed, or follow me on Twitter @mattlevonian.

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