Archive for May, 2010

Attic, part 31

Monday, May 31st, 2010

Now that she knew the connection, Jenny was seeing the city with new eyes. “Do you realize,” she said, “that just about every building we’re passing has something about it that connects to the attic in my house?”

“Could you maybe give a fer-instance?” Sid asked.

“Well, look at that tree,” she said, pointing. “It’s the same tree that’s in the picture you see right when you walk up the stairs to the attic. And that old car right there — in that driveway — it’s exactly the same model as the toy car on the window sill.”

“Wait,” Josh said, “how can you remember so many details about what’s in your attic?”

“The attic has always been my get-away place”, Jenny explained, the words suddenly coming out all in a rush. “After Dad was gone, things were never the same, and I really just needed some place to hide. The attic was the one place in the world I knew I could go to be alone, especially when Mom was in one of her moods. She would never go up those stairs — ever. It’s like she was scared of something. So when I was little, and even after I wasn’t so little, I would spend whole days up there by myself, exploring, looking in all the drawers and on the closet shelves, finding stuff. There was always something new. It was kind of like a treasure hunt on my own private island. I always thought it was just the most completely unique place…”

All at once she stopped herself. She realized her companions were all staring at her.

“I mean,” she added, looking around, “until now.”

Fake journalism

Sunday, May 30th, 2010

Most people assume that when they read a news account, they are reading a more or less faithful representation of reality. This illusion is quickly shattered when you happen to know the story behind the story.

Case in point. My colleague Daphne Bavelier, in some rather brilliant and groundbreaking research, has discovered that playing action games (computer games that involve rapid real-time response by the player) greatly improves the human brain’s ability to track multiple objects at once and to make rapid and accurate decisions in real time. Research by her and her colleagues has shown that in a very real sense, playing action games over time makes our brains work better (much as physical exercise makes our bodies work better).

It’s important to point out at this juncture, given what will come later, that we’re not talking about violent video games in particular. Some action games happen to have a violent narrative wrapped around them, but Bavelier’s research has shown that the narrative is irrelevant — driving games or games involving only abstract objects will benefit brain development just as much as an action game framed in a violent narrative (like shooting aliens or zombies).

Bavelier gave a talk on her research the other day at a little workshop on Games for Learning at New York University. In a funny moment during the Q&A, an audience member asked the following question: Since girls don’t like violent games as much as boys, how can we get girls to play them? Bavelier, who had already made it very clear that actions games are not the same as violent games, responded with the sardonic (and somewhat exasperated) suggestion that maybe a game could “use, for example, a princess which has a magic wand and whenever she touches something, it turns into a butterfly and sparkles”, which got a big laugh from the audience.

All well and good, until you read the Associated Press article by Karen Matthews that came out the next day. Matthews wrote the article as though Daphne Bavelier had deliberately advocated for violence in video games. The article ended by quoting Bavelier’s response about girls and butterflies as though it were a serious suggestion.

You can judge for yourself by reading the article, which is rather absurdly entitled Violent video games touted as learning tool.

Matthew’s article claims that Bevalier is promoting violent computer games, yet nowhere is there a quote in the article where Bevalier says any such thing (because she never would say such a thing). Rather, quotes by others and misdirection are used to warp the point of the talk.

It’s clear, to anyone who was present at Bavelier’s talk, that Matthews’ article is pure sensationalism — a deliberate misrepresentation designed simply to drum up fears about games (and, I suspect, to sell newspapers).

It’s chilling to realize the nasty and cynical game that Matthews is up to here. How much of the “news” we read is actually garbage like this? How often does useful and important research get obscured by shoddy and dishonest reporting? And how often do we happen to have the background knowledge to know that the news article we are reading is, essentially, fake journalism?

Attic, part 30

Saturday, May 29th, 2010

Josh moved purposefully through the dark streets, and the others followed. He seemed to know the way now, almost as though he’d been here before. Jenny saw a look of grim concentration on her friend’s face. It wasn’t a look she remembered ever seeing before — at school Josh had always seemed so unserious. “How well do we know anyone?” she mused.

But at that moment Jenny’s thoughts were interrupted when Josh stopped abruptly in his tracks.

“What is it?” Mr. Symarian said.

Josh just stood silently for a moment. His eyes seemed to refocus, to come back to the here and now. “I don’t really know. It just feels like I’m supposed to stop.”

Suddenly Jenny gasped out loud. “This buildling,” she said, pointing to the building they had stopped in front of, “look at it. Josh, what do you see?”

“Looks like a building to me,” he said, looking puzzled.

“I’ll second that,” Sid said. “Definitely a building. Tall, square, kinda rococo, not really my thing.”

“Shhh!,” Jenny said. “Sid, be quiet. This is important. Josh, haven’t you seen this somewhere before?”

Josh stared at the building for a good long while. Then recognition dawned. “It looks just like your music box — the one from the attic. Only bigger. And there’s no ballerina on top.”

Elmo with broccoli

Friday, May 28th, 2010

I heard a delightful talk yesterday by Michael Levine, a wonderful man and an important innovator in educational media technologies for young children. One thing he spoke about was the great power of characters that children love. This power can actually be measured — and is. For example, at one point in his talk he reported:

“Elmo when paired with broccoli beats a neutral character when paired with chocolate.”

I found this to be a particularly powerful statement in what it says about how much children like Elmo. Particularly given that I really, really don’t like Elmo. Of course I’m not the target demographic here. I was talking to a colleague after the talk, and she and I agreed that, much as we both love chocolate, our version of it might be:

“A neutral character when paired with broccoli beats Elmo when paired with chocolate.”

I love this entire analogical approach to things, and I wonder how far you can take this way of thinking. Does Darth Vader when paired with Oreo cookies beat Han Solo when paired with stinky tofu?

Does Josef Stalin when paired with Princess Leia beat Mahatma Gandhi when paired with Jar Jar Binks? These are difficult questions, not to be decided lightly.

And of course, the question that just had to be asked: Does Paris Hilton when paired with the 1975 Cincinatti Reds beat the Buddha when paired with the 1962 Mets?

Guess that might depend on whether you’re a baseball fan.

Attic, part 29

Thursday, May 27th, 2010

The central tower of the city was now in sight, directly in front of them. All the travellers needed to do was proceed forward, and they would surely arrive at their destination. “I think we’re nearly there,” Jenny said in relief. She couldn’t even say how long they had been travelling, and her feet ached terribly.

“No,” said Josh, “we have to turn here.” He pointed down a narrow dimly lit side street — really more of an alley than a street.

“What do you mean?” Jenny said, exasperated. “The tower is right there in front of us. I can see it!”

Josh just shook his head. “That way doesn’t work. Look, I’m sorry, I don’t know how I know, but I just know. If we go that way, we’ll die.”

Jenny was about to say something in response, something she was sure would have been cutting and clever, when Sid interjected. “He’s the path finder, remember? Whatever he says, goes.”

“Oh right,” she said. She looked at Mr. Symarian and Charlie, and they all nodded in agreement. She came to her senses. If Josh said it wasn’t safe, then it wasn’t safe.

The travellers turned into the alley, just in time to miss he low grumble of a sound far, far down the main road — the path they had not taken. It sounded like nothing so much as a deep growling, the kind a dog might make if strangers approached.

ten dollar computer

Wednesday, May 26th, 2010

I learned this week that there is a movement around building things for a ten dollar computer ( The existence of these computers, which can be found, for example, in marketplaces in Mumbai, came about due to a combination of two things: patents running out on old 6502 processing chips from the 1970s, and the propensity of small manufacturers in China to throw things together quickly and cheaply, if they see a market.

Given all the hype about the iPad and other relatively expensive devices, it’s intriguing that there is a computer inexpensive enough to be in the hands of a fairly large proportion of the world’s population — and in particular, the world’s children. Educational games made for such a platform (assuming they are well made) could easily reach a far higher proportion of children around the globe than anything we are currently doing that aims at a higher end platform.

There is something immensely appealing about the idea that illiteracy — one of the key contributors to endemic poverty — might be battled by enlisting the technological power of old video games.

Attic, part 28

Tuesday, May 25th, 2010

Bruno sensed something new in the air. Softly he growled. Since time before time, he had been standing watch over his mistress, guarding the way to the castle spire where she slept. In all that time, none had dare cross his path. The mere sight of his fearsome visage had turned away even the hardiest of souls.

But now strangers approached. He did not know how he knew this — he just knew. He rose slowly, unaccustomed to movement. It had been so long since the last time he had needed to awaken from his eternal vigil.

But now he was fully awake, and his senses were alert. He sniffed the air, seeking a clue to the identity of the invaders. They seemed strange, with a scent in may ways unlike that of the villagers. Above all, these travellers seemed not to have the smell of fear about them.

At least not yet.

Martin Gardner

Monday, May 24th, 2010

Martin Gardner died this past weekend at the age of 95. In the scheme of things, not the worst age to die. He had time to accomplish many of the things he wanted to in life. And oh, the things he accomplished!

When you’re a brainy misfit kid, say around thirteen years old, too smart by half for your own good but utterly unable to connect with kids your own age, life becomes a kind of purgatory. You may have friends, but in some ways you find yourself completely alone.

But then one day you pick up a copy of “Scientific American”, and happen upon Martin Gardner’s column on Mathematical Games. And suddenly you are not alone. Here is a man — an actual, honest to goodness grownup — who shares your loves, your passions, your belief that there is beauty in the very fabric of the universe.

I remember poring over his columns for hours at a time, studying the beautiful puzzles, working them out, letting one thought lead to another until my mind had built an entire cathedral of meaning.

Martin Gardner was not afraid to be a nerd, an uncool intellectual, a mathematical devotee. He reveled in mathematical beauty, not with the jaded and self-interested eye of a grownup, but with a kid’s perfect enthusiasm, a pure unadulterated hobbyist’s delight.

I saw him speak once, when I was a teenager. I was thrilled to see my idol standing before us in person, and he did not disappoint. He talked of puzzles, of strange mathematical paradoxes, of delightful creations conjured from pure thought. I saw then that Martin Gardner was a brilliant overgrown kid, excited and inspired — as I was — by the sheer joy of problem solving.

He is gone now in body, but will forever be with us in spirit. I realize, in this moment of this man’s death, knowing how many lives he has touched, and how many young minds he has kindled, that this is not an occasion for mourning, but rather a celebration of a life beautifully lived.

Attic, part 27

Sunday, May 23rd, 2010

As they walked the deserted streets in the gathering gloom, the travellers instinctively huddled together. Josh looked off into the distance, at the five ramparts around the city, each glowing with an eerie green light. He turned to the large demon. “Why does the city have five sides?”

Charlie shook his head. “Didn’t always. The city’s changed in all kinds of ways, and some of those changes are hard to explain. ‘Cause it’s not really the city — it’s more like the reality.”

Josh looked confused, and the big demon just shrugged and smiled apologetically. “Sorry kid, I’m no good with metaphysics.”

Sid chimed in helpfully. “Old Charlie’s probably a little out of his depth here. Hey Teach, can you help us out with this one?”

Mr. Symarian smiled sadly. “It is indeed as our large friend says. Since the arrival of She Who Sleeps, it is believed that this reality itself has been changing to reflect her dreams.”

“Wait,” Jenny said, “are you talking about my grandmother Amelia?”

A few questions

Saturday, May 22nd, 2010

If we attained true global peace, would we stop saluting flags?
If we knew the world would never end, would we still recycle plastic bags?

If we all were telepaths, would that take away love’s passion?
If we were by love at last fulfilled, would there still be any jobs in fashion?

If we could beam ourselves at will, would we love fast cars anyway?
If we knew that we could live forever, would we still cherish every day?