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Video Games and Alter Egos

Several thoughts come to mind, having just finished this week’s reading. Most (all?) of the people interviewed played games to satisfy a desire or need within. Of course, there is nothing wrong with taking outer actions to satisfy inner needs, but it seems to me that the “gamers” were doing this in ways that are not healthful. For instance, Jarish, who was really into Dungeons and Dragons, was uncertain whether D and D is more real than the real reality. Marty, the Manhattan banker, used the game to force him onto another mental state where the thoughts and cares of the day cannot intrude. And Jimmy, the guy who has a birth defect, is “at war with his mind” so he plays Space Invaders because it puts him in an altered state where he can’t think of all those “crazy things” – those things that are so crazy he didn’t want to divulge them, but just left it at … “crazy things”.
These statements sound like true confessions of people who are trying to escape reality or cope with reality or possibly trying to decide which reality they want to live in – the real reality or a simulated reality in which they have more control. They (the people) also seemed to be self-absorbed, as evidenced by the paucity of comments about “others”. The closest anyone came to connecting playing video games with concern for others is David, who said that it helped him “find himself again” so he could better communicate with his wife who is expecting a baby and “needs to talk”. Well, okay, I will grant that doing something to enhance conjugal communications is a good thing, but really? Does it take (should it take) 2 hours at an arcade every day on the way home from work to get yourself in the right state of mind to talk to your wife?! And how did men ever get themselves in the right state of mind to communicate to their wives before video games?

All that being said, I agree with the author that most people who play video games don’t get addicted to them just as most people who diet don’t become anorexic. The people who appear in this article don’t appear to be “the casual video game player”, but are, to use a math term … outliers – at least, I hope they are! So, I don’t think that all video games are evil, but I do believe that – like so many things in life – if used improperly, they can have a deleterious impact on the user. Let the user beware!

Phil – A Simple Kind of Guy

I thought the author’s point about Apple Computer’s Knowledge Navigator, Phil, was intriguing. It’s a good point actually, that a character’s traits should be manifest in the actions it performs (in a drama) and if this principle is violated it will cause a negative reaction by the viewer of the drama/computer user. When Phil was represented as a human, people expected to see human traits, but when all the observable traits/actions were “simple”, the viewers concluded that Phil is a stupid character and they didn’t like him.

I thought it was revealing that when Phil’s representation did not live up to his actions, the viewers “attacked” the representation (Phil) and not the simple actions he was performing. I wonder why this is so. One possible explanation is that viewers interface with the computer (the drama – the action) via the character (the representation) so if there’s an incongruity between the two, the viewer places the culpability at the feet of the character – not the actions. Besides, characters have feet and actions don’t, so I suppose this is a sensible thing to do:-)

When Apple changed Phil’s representation to a line-drawn cartoon, thus bringing his representation in line with his simple actions, Phil was a much more likable guy.

I now know how to win a popularity contest – if I should ever decide to enter one – give the appearance of being a simple guy and then … act accordingly!

Condominiums in Data Space

As I read this week’s article, I found the author’s attitude toward the current educational system rather amusing 🙂 So much so that I am compelled to comment on it. He starts with the statement that educational CDs can free students from “boring and incompetent teachers …” and goes on to mention “… the boring domain of linear logic in the school classroom” followed closely by his most revealing remark “…for the artist, standard educational logic structures are just not that interesting”. To be sure, nobody wants to get stuck with a “boring and incompetent” teacher. This can cast a rain cloud over anybody’s educational experience, but we must remember that new media in and of itself, will not deliver students from this most dreadful sentence upon their lives 😦 I remember hearing about a professor who gave boring lectures (from his 20 year old notes on paper). Then he switched to Power Point and now he gives boring lectures (in living color using Power Point slides). The medium is new but the lectures are not. Very sad indeed.

And about all that “linear logic bashing”, I find this ironic in light of the fact that it was the “linear logic” of electrical circuitry and boolean arithmetic, which produced the new medium (the computer), and now the author wants to use the new medium in place of what is driving the new medium. It reminds me of the student who wants to harness the “power of math”, but does not want to be ruled by the tyranny of mathematics! I believe there is a place for creativity and artistic expression in the educational system, but there is also plenty of room for logic – even if the artist finds logic structures … “just not that interesting”.

Moving on to happier thoughts, the author states that life without editing is just not that interesting and he also says that very recently the ability to forget has become a prized skill. I was intrigued by these statements because they reminded me of the Biblical teaching to remember the things that God says we ought to remember (like His law) and to forget the things that we ought to forget, which is called forgiveness – the intentional choice to not remember when someone has wronged you. When I live my life accoring to the teachings of Christianity, I am in effect editing out those things that are better left out and keeping in those things that are worth keeping in and I do agree with the author that this editing process does indeed make life more interesting and I would add … more fulfilling too 🙂

Warp and Woof

Today’s reading was refreshing by virtue of it’s brevity, especially compared to last week’s reading, which was gruelingly (but survivably) long!

I thought the last two examples were very interesting. The OPUS system (very clever name), which takes as input, data obtained by playing a musical instrument and displays as output, the conventional musical score, is a great time-saving device. Who knows – if Mr Holland (in Mr Holland’s Opus) had had one of these systems, he may have achieved the magnum opus he so diligently and persistently pursued. That being said, the opus he ended up with, namely, the changed lives of his students, is far and away the better of the two … IMHO 🙂 If you haven’t seen this movie, I highly recommend it.

The other example – designing an electrical circuit using an iconic menu – was a very cool idea, especially if (and I assume this was the case) the computer, er uh, the Dynabook was then able to display as output, the behavior of the electrical circuit so created. This could definitely save lots of time and money (and soldering!) for those who need to design electrical circuitry.

And finally, I must admit that his use of the words “warp” and “woof” brought a smile to my face. I have a friend (Bob) from England who is fond of using the phrase “the warp and the woof” of some thing he’s talking about, but other than conversations with Bob I rarely hear these words used. Who would expect to run across these words in a technical article on dynamic media? And I wonder who penned these words? Was it Kay or Goldberg? I’m putting my money on Kay because he spent several years when he was young (and formative) in … drum roll please … Australia! And the Aussies got their language largely from the Brits, who colonized the continent. This now ends my “thought trail” (or was that a rabbit trail?) on warp and woof.

G’Day Mate!

CL/DM

The Computer Lib/Dream Machines article was interesting – and at points hilarious – reading. It’s been quite unexpected to see how each of the authors so far has been motivated to do what he did by his world view and this week’s reading is no different. Why did Nelson care so much about how the media was being designed? He tells us that “… at this moment, we can and must design the media, design the molecules of our new water, and I believe the details of this design matter very deeply. They will be with us for a very long time, perhaps as long as man has left; perhaps if they are as good as they can be, man may even buy more time …” Translation: we must save ourselves. And this is one of the basic tenets of secular humanism – that man can solve all of man’s problems. Indeed, there is no one else to do it. This was just a passing, albeit revealing, comment by the author so I too will mention it en passant … and move on.

His comments on “computer assisted instruction” all presupposed that there would be no human element in the process, but rather, the whole instructional delivery system would be computer driven, start to finish. I’m guessing this was the rage back then and he was reacting to it. Much of what is done today is a mix of computer and human elements. I recently read an article that talked about the role of the (human) instructor in a computer assisted learning environment. There’s a role to play for the human and the computer in this environment and we must be aware of this, lest we end up “acting out” the wrong part in this grand play known as “computer-assisted instruction”. All that to say, I thought his concerns about CAI were legit, but that’s not really how we use computers to help us educate students, at least not around here.

Nelson did not have a very high view of “schooling” in general. I thought his 6 premises relevant to teaching were amusing, especially the second one where he says that everything is interesting until the school system systematically ruins it for us and the last thing ruined will determine our profession 🙂 Very funny! I know the present school system is not perfect, but he really does paint it out to be a rather dark and sinister operation that systematically ruins peoples lives. It made me wonder if he had been reading Mark Twain, who said “One should never let schooling get in the way of one’s education.” 🙂

At one point the author says that education should be “inviting and enjoyable” … but not boring. Well, I do agree that we shouldn’t go out of our way to turn an intrisically interesting subject into a painfully boring one, but come on … really? Inviting and enjoyable? That’s what education is? What ever happened to “education is hard work”? You study and study and strive valiantly as you try to “apprehend the concept” or “master the technique” and sometimes, just when you think all is lost, the light bulb comes on and you prevail in the struggle. You rise up and slay the monster, so to speak, and from that day forward, the knowledge is yours. You have mastered it! You own it from this day forward and forevermore. Yes, IMHO education is much more like working in a mine than walking on an inviting and enjoyable beach.

There were of course, some positive elements – many actually. I appreciate his writing the article in the first place because he was sick and tired of not getting a straight answer (=an answer that a layman could understand) from “the professionals”. His desire to help the “common person on the streets” is commendable. And his whole emphasis on designing media thoughtfully and with the human user in mind, is in my mind where the emphasis should be. He was spot on here!

As I read through the article, I found myself heartily agreeing with one thing and then – sometimes almost immediately – vehemently disagreeing with the next thing he said followed by hearty agreement once again. It was quite a roller coaster ride for me but in light of all his comments about education, and my own “strongly held views” of education, I suppose that is not too surprising 🙂

Men and Machines

This weeks reading was very interesting to me. Both of the authors were true visionaries in their fields. I was struck by Wiener’s concern that scientists should weigh how the knowledge requested of them will be used and not simply deliver the knowledge for the sake of a free information society or common courtesy. This is a good point and applies to many areas other than merely science.

His discussion of the homeostatic mechanisms in the human body struck a chord with me as well. If any one of these devices fails to work properly, then our system can exhibit wild oscillatory behavior (like the steam chambers in the steering mechanism for ships) or exhibit “runaway” production of some body product to lethal proportions. How does one reconcile these complex homeostatic mechanisms with Darwinism? Hmm?

Wiener says “Zen finds selflessness to be the root of compassion” and later that “selflessness has often seemed nihilistic to U.S. thinkers”. This statement is … oh say very interesting to me. I wonder how Zen defines “selflessness”. Is it merely getting rid of all desire or is it more? If it is merely extinguishing the flame of self-desire – totally and completely, then one has to wonder – at least a modern day American thinker will wonder – how this will induce one to have compassion for others since compassion in its very essence is taking action on an inner desire to help others in need. If all desire is gone, it would seem that there can be no desire to help others. There must be a path to connect the dots because this idea led Thich Naht Hanh (the Vietnamese Nobel Laureate) to direct action, but I don’t see the path to connect the dots. Can someone help me out here?

Wiener’s comment about machines responding better than men in emergency situations is well taken. I have seen many emergency situations in my 23 years of naval experience and it is very dangerous to expect people to think on their feet in an emergency situation. Indeed, the very reason why we drill, drill, drill in the nave is so that when the emergency happens (flooding, fire, battle conditions, etc) the sailors can respond “without thinking” by doing exactly as they have been trained to do. That being said, there is a limit in this whole idea of replacing people with machines in emergency situations and Wiener hinted at it when he said “Any emergency you can think of, you can provide for in your computing and control apparatus.” Agreed! But what about the emergencies that you did not/can not think of? We can not anticipate all emergencies and hence, we need to build in a “manual override” option in the machines we build. Sorry Hal 😦

Thoughts on “As We May Think”

I think Vannevar Bush was quite a visionary and I thoroughly enjoyed reading his article.  I was impressed by his motivation.  It’s always interesting to learn what drives people to do what they do.  If the editor of The Atlantic Monthly was correct, Bush wanted to perfect peaceful instruments that could make accessible this bewildering store of knowledge in order to extend the powers of the mind, rather than man’s physical powers.  This is a noble goal indeed and seems to be born out by Bush’s own comments about not merely storing and retrieving information, but consulting it and (later in the article when he talks about the memex machine) being able to process it in a way that makes it more useful to the user.

I appreciate the notion of “the utility of knowledge”, which is sprinkled throughout Bush’s article.  At one point he says “A record if it is to be useful to science, must be continuously extended …” and in another place he talks about “the lasting benefit of these new instruments” to mankind.  Indeed, throughout the article he discusses one futuristic instrument after the next, explaining how each can be utilized to mankind’s benefit and in section 5 he expresses a desire that man ought to profit by his inheritance of acquired knowledge.  I resonate on this frequency along with Bush.  Acquiring knowledge and storing it on a shelf somewhere, never to be consulted again or used in any beneficial way, does seem to be stopping prematurely in this grand enterprise of storing, retrieving, and processing of knowledge.  With much knowledge comes much responsibility.  How then shall we responsibly use the knowledge we’ve inherited from those who have gone before us? A probing and challenging question, worth pondering lest we squander our inheritance.

On a more personal level, it raises the question of how I will use technology/new media in my classes at Ben U.  Using technology for the sake of using technology is, well, less than satisfying.  In order for technology to be useful, I need to figure out how to use it to help my students learn math or learn more or think differently.  There must be some benefit to the students (or me) in using it.  This is the challenge to me as an instructor with some piece of technology in hand.  How can I use this device to help my students increase their knowledge and/or understanding of math (and the world)?  If I can’t find a way to do this, then maybe I shouldn’t be using the device.

And speaking of using a device, how do we know when we are using a device or technology or new media as we “ought” to be.  A deep question indeed because of the presence of “ought”, but here’s a thought.  I like the analogy of the telephone.  When we use a phone, I don’t think most of us – as we are talking to someone – think to ourselves how marvelous is this device in my hand that enables me to talk to someone on the other side of the country (or the world).  We simply use the phone for communication.  Similarly, how many of us marvel over this grand invention of the automobile as we drive to work every day.  I’m guessing for the most part we simply use our car for transportation.  So what of these new technological devices and new media?  How do I know if I’m using them “usefully and as I ought”?  The analogy suggests that if I am aware of the device or new media, then I probably haven’t arrived yet, but if I’m using it “unaware of the device itself” to accomplish some task, to meet some need, to answer some question, then I have reason to have confidence that I am close to where I “ought” to be and far from where I ought not to be, namely, squandering my inheritance of knowledge.