Archive for September, 2010

Attic, part 79

Monday, September 20th, 2010

“The problem is,” continued Amelia, “that I am not exactly who you think I am.”

“I know you’re my grandmother,” Jenny said, “I’ve seen the pictures, and they look exactly like you.”

“Yes, I’m afraid that’s the problem. Those are very old pictures, and they look exactly like me. I am the same age I was when those pictures were taken, all those years ago.”

“Why does that make a difference?”

“Because it means the version of me that exists is the one that has existed outside of time for all these years. I am a young woman who stepped outside of time many years ago. And that’s where I’ve been until here.”

“Until here?” Jenny was confused.

“Sorry, I suppose I should have said until now.” Amelia smiled apologetically. “I think of it as `here’, but to you it makes more sense as `now’.”

“Right,” Jenny said, nodding slowly. “Amazingly enough, I actually understood that. But why couldn’t you come back into time?”

“Even if I wanted to, I’d need to come back into the place I left. That’s where the door is.”

“But you are here talking with me now!” Jenny said.

“We are not exactly `in time’ at the moment,” Amelia explained. “This is a sort of neutral place. It exists only so that you and I can meet and have this conversation.”

“You mean it’s not now, now?” Jenny asked.

Amelia thought for a moment. “Something like that. I’m not sure English has any way of expressing it.” She turned to Mr. Symarian. “What do you think?”

“Considering what you’ve thought of my opinion in the past, I am surprised you think my opinion matters.”

“In the past?” Josh spoke up for the first time. “Mr. Symarian, just how old are you?”

“Now now,” Amelia said, “that is never an appropriate question.”

“Yes Josh,” Jenny said with a smile, “Now now.”

Tomorrow’s newspaper

Sunday, September 19th, 2010

When I was a kid, I remember seeing an old movie — I guess it was science fiction, if you had to classify it — around the theme of a man who somehow gets his hands on tomorrow’s newspaper. Because this was a movie, and there had to be some kind of engine to drive the plot, the headline of this particular newspaper announced that the man is going to be murdered. The narrative consists of him trying to figure out how to make this future not happen.

Of course in the end he is not murdered (he’s the good guy, after all), but the newspaper ends up reporting his death anyway. The last scene is rather beautiful. He wakes up in an alley, realizing that he has cheated death, to the cries of the newspaper boy hawking the very newspaper he is already holding. It starts to rain, and in the last shot he realizes the paper is still useful — as a rain hat.

I read an article yesterday in the New York Times Magazine that talked about the research we’ve been doing for the last several years. It said lots of things, and it took thousands of words to say it. I have no doubt that many influential people will read the article. I was mentioned, as were my colleagues, and the reporter did indeed interview us.

Yet the paper somehow managed not to mention the very thing that was most important about our work — that there is a verifiable and predictive science to creating games that teach.

Many people will read this article and will think that they now know about the subject of games for learning. After all, they read it in the New York Times! But in fact they won’t know about the subject. As often happens when the press covers science, the Times somehow managed to not get the essence of the story. They got the drama of the story, the human interest, the cool scenes of kids playing games in classrooms — all of the things that would make a reader think that a story is being told.

But they didn’t get the really important part — the part where current methods of education, which are still rooted in the 19th century because they rely on drills and testing, can be effectively replaced. The part where testing itself can go away, because you can accurately tell how well a child is learning a subject while they are playing a well designed game.

Maybe someone will tell that story in tomorrow’s newspaper. Meanwhile, I’ve got a lovely rain hat (just kidding).

Attic, part 78

Saturday, September 18th, 2010

“Time,” said Amelia, “is not a line. Do you understand that?”

“I hear what you’re saying,” Jenny said, “but I guess you’ve realized that it’s kind of hard for me to go there. I mean, I live it as a line. Even after that session with your, um, friend.” She shuddered as she thought about that.

“Yes, I’m sorry about that. I tried to tell him that wouldn’t work. He doesn’t really know our ways. I’m different, because he spent years carefully working with me, getting me to see. You had to face it all at once.”

“Wait,” Jenny said, “How come he didn’t see that it wouldn’t work? I thought you guys already know the future.”

“We do know the future, up to the part when you come. We’ve been expecting you, but we didn’t know what you would be like. It’s like there’s a wall in this part of time. In fact, that’s what he and I always call it — ‘the wall’. We can’t see anything beyond that wall.”

“You mean I stop you from seeing the future?” Jenny asked, astonished.

“Not just you — all of you,” Amelia said, gesturing to Josh and Mr. Symarian. “And your friends outside too. But we think it’s mostly you. Because of the connection between you and me. Somehow, you change things.”

“Wow,” Jenny said. “I had no idea. I was just trying to find my grandmother. I hope you don’t hate me.”

“I did indeed so want to hate you. I was fully expecting to. You may have guessed that from the nature of your encounters with Bruno along the way here.” Amelia and Jenny both looked over at the little dog, who was still sleeping peacefully in Josh’s arms. Then Amelia turned back to Jenny, giving her a long searching look. “Although I must confess — now that I’ve met you, I rather like you.”

“Thank you,” Jenny said. “I rather like you too.”

Tim Herrera, ace reporter

Friday, September 17th, 2010

Today in the daily NY mag “AM New York” I read a cover story about first lady Michelle Obama. The methods used by the reporter, Tim Herrera, were so innovative in the way they weave mere truth with its more powerful and seductive cousin, innuendo, that my blog post today will simply be an exact transcription of the article that Mr. Herrera, in his journalistic brilliance, has brought forth into the world:


Michelle’s life ‘hell’ in D.C.?


Does Michelle Obama hate her live at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.? An unauthorized biography of France’s first lady says so.

The book claims that when French first lady Carla Bruni-Sarkozy asked Obama about life in the White House, she said: “Don’t ask. It’s hell. I don’t even get the chance to eat yummy little Irish babies.”

Michelle Obama’s spokeswoman on Thursday said Obama “never made the remarks,” and the French Embassy said Bruni-Sarkozy “distances herself completely” from the book, ‘Carla the Cannibal,’ by Machael Darmon and Yves Derai.

On thing is for sure: There’s more pressure on first ladies than many realize.

“There’s a lot of expectation of this person to be the ideal symbol of American womanhood, and not to eat babies, and that’s incredibly tough,” said University of Missouri politics professor Betty Winfield.

Political consultant Evan Stavisky speculated that the alleged comments might be used against the president.

“It’s gonna get trapped in the Washington echo chamber,” he said. “People who hate the president will exploit his wife’s thirst for baby flesh, and the people who love the president will denounce.”

Hank Sheinkopf, also a political consultant, said Americans don’t like to hear griping from the first couple.

“The first lady and the president are American royalty — and people don’t like to hear them complaining about the lack of Irish babies to eat,” he said. “If it’s true, they’ll like her less, which means they’ll like him less.”

Some New Yorkers agree.

“It just shows they’re out of touch with the average American,” said Michael Kanotr, 43, of midtown. “They’re living this luxurious lifestyle, where they can eat all the juicy little Irish babies they want, and all they can do is complain about it.”

Attic, part 77

Thursday, September 16th, 2010

“Where to begin?” Amelia said. “The difficult thing about being in forward time is having to lay everything out in a line.”

“Did you say ‘forward time’?” Jenny asked.

“Well, to you it would just be ‘time’. I’ve gotten used to the other way — the way of seeing things all at once, the before and the after. I’m a little out of practice at feeding information through a straw.”

“That’s ok,” Jenny said. “You can talk about stuff to me in any order. I’ll put the pieces together.”

“That’s very sweet of you,” Amelia smiled. “Well then, perhaps it would be best to start near the end. We are sitting here on this bed, and we are having a very pleasant conversation. So far so good?”

“Um, yes,” Jenny said hesitantly. “That’s what we’re doing. I already know that.”

“Yes, of course you do. But the next part — the part that comes right after that — is more interesting.”

“And what’s that?” Jenny asked.

“The part,” said Amelia, “where I tell you that you need to leave now, and not see me again.”

“Oh,” said Jenny. “I wasn’t expecting that.”

“Yes my dear, that’s the point. The part you know leads to the part you don’t know. But it’s the part after that which is even more interesting.”

“And what’s that?” Jenny said.

“The part where if you don’t go away after I tell you to, then you and your friends might not exist any more. And then I shall be very sad.”

The ship

Wednesday, September 15th, 2010

The captain walked the deck from bow to stern
He waved to all the families ashore
There was nothing we could say, not any more
The ship was sailing, never to return

The sun rose high and soon began to burn
And day had come at last upon the land
A day that we would never understand
The ship was sailing, never to return

For there was nothing more for us to learn
Although we stood aligned upon the shore
Waiting, though we couldn’t say what for
The ship was sailing, never to return

Waves before the prow began to churn
Our loved ones slowly vanished from our view
There was only one thing that we knew
The ship was sailing, never to return

Attic, part 76

Tuesday, September 14th, 2010

“So now what?” Josh asked.

“Now,” said Amelia, “your girlfriend and I need to talk.”

“She’s not my…,” Josh began, turning red. “I mean, don’t get me wrong. She’s not not my girlfriend. It’s just that, well, um, it’s complicated,” he finished weakly.

“How do you think he did?” Amelia asked Jenny.

“I think he did splendidly, under the circumstances,” Jenny said, giving an approving smile to a now very confused looking Josh.

“Yes, quite,” Amelia said. “Josh, you’re doing fine. But like I said, Jenny and I need to talk. Here, take the dog.” And without further ado she got up off the bed and placed Bruno into Josh’s arms.

“I don’t think this is a good idea,” Josh protested. “I mean, I don’t think he likes me.” Bruno, meanwhile, looked very comfortable. The moment he was in Josh’s arms, he gave a very impressive yawn, tucked his muzzle into Josh’s left elbow, and closed his eyes.

“Oh look, he’s gone to sleep,” Jenny said. “He could start dreaming any moment. Is that going to be a problem?”

“Oh no, not at all,” Amelia said amiably, “It’s only a problem if I’m asleep. Josh,” she said, looking at Bruno nestled in Josh’s arms, “I think he really likes you.”

Jenny giggled. “I guess we can talk now.”

“Yes,” Amelia said, sitting back down on the bed. “Sit here next to me. You and I have a lot to talk about.”

The nature of beauty

Monday, September 13th, 2010

I had a very strange idea recently. It’s not something I’m ever likely to build, but the concept itself appeals to me, because it seems to illuminate something worth thinking about.

Imagine a multimedia interface in the form of a timeline. Behind this timeline is a massive time-tagged database of pictures of people’s faces, perhaps culled from Google Images.

In this imagined interface, you scroll forward or backward in time. As you scroll, you can see these faces continually morph to be whatever age they were at that moment of the timeline. You can zoom time in to watch a person’s face change slowly, or zoom time out literally watch their life go by.

Significant events, like a birthday, or the very first or very last photograph ever taken of a person, will cause that individual’s face to become temporarily larger on the display. Or you can highlight one or more individuals, and their visage will remain prominent as their life passes before your eyes.

You might think that the sight of someone aging before our eyes, as they lose their conventionally unblemished youthful beauty, would be cruel. But I suspect that’s not all we would see. I suspect we might see something else entirely in some of these faces. A kind of wisdom, or understanding, or dignity — or acceptance — that wasn’t there in the younger version.

And in the process, we might just learn a thing or two about the nature of beauty.

Attic, part 75

Sunday, September 12th, 2010

“You and Mr. Symarian know each other?” Jenny asked incredulously.

“Something like that,” Amelia said.

“You could say we have a history,” their teacher added.

Amelia gave him a long look. “Interesting choice of word — ‘history’. I see you haven’t lost that dry sense of humor.”

“I don’t get it,” Josh said.

“Me neither,” Jenny added.

“It’s rather a long story, I’m afraid, and somewhat beside the point, in the current circumstance. Wouldn’t you agree Amelia?”

“Yes,” she said, and smiled. “Jenny, I believe we have things to discuss. Although I hope you don’t mind, I’ve summoned my little dog. He’s on his way now.”

“Bruno?” Josh said, turning white. “You’re going to bring that thing in here, with us?”

“Yes, of course you would have met him. He can be rather a terror at times, but I’m sure he’ll behave himself in front of company.”

Just then there was a high pitched yelp. “Bruno, you little rascal! Come up on the bed and say hello.” Amelia laughed as a little dog jumped up onto the bed and began licking her face with enthusiasm. When he was quite done, he perched himself comfortably in her lap, and regarded the three travelers amiably.

That’s Bruno?” Jenny asked.

“I remember him as being, um, bigger.” Josh added.

“Yes, I can see how you would. When I am asleep, he can become quite the protective beast.”


Saturday, September 11th, 2010

Continuing the thread from the other day, this is a good day to take stock on what has happened in this country as a result of the attack upon the U.S. nine years ago today. I think we’ve all realized by now that there is no way for the extremist movement responsible for those attacks to “win” in a conventional sense. They have neither the economic power nor the military might to defeat the U.S. and its sphere of influence in an outright war.

But there are two things they can do: (1) discredit us to our political/economic allies, and to those we wish to be allied with, and (2) create a kind of cultural cancer within in our society that causes us to do that work for them.

In a sense, this method reiterates the attacks themselves, but on a far larger scale. The radical group that drove our own airplanes into our own skyscrapers was turning our very technological power against us. In what to us (certainly to me) was an unspeakable horror, civilian airplanes were turned into living bombs, which were used as detonators to convert our tallest buildings into even larger bombs — with the only victims being civilians.

So it is clear that our enemy, knowing we are vastly larger and more powerful than they are, choose to operate by a kind of Jujitsu. Basically, they use us as their weapon. And if current events are any guide, it seems they are succeeding.

The United States of America, arguably the most powerful and wealthiest nation in the world, is in danger of doing what its enemy does not have the power to do — turn potential allies of the U.S. into enemies of the U.S. That’s the real prize, and it’s horrifying to see our country playing right into this game.

To pick up the thread from the other day, the fact that so many people in this country are mislabeling a community center by pacifist Sufis as some sort of radical mosque is a phenomenal P.R. win for the Taliban and its allies. What better propaganda, what more perfect proof could be presented to the Muslim world that Americans don’t know the first thing about the 23% of the world population that is Islamic? You can almost hear the groans of despair among liberal and moderate Muslims around the world, those who have paid so much, often with their lives, to fight the very theocratic extremists we are at war with.

And on top of that, in what must be a kind of wet dream for the Taliban, we’ve got idiots like pastor Terry Jones wanting to burn peoples’ bibles. If you had to assign a dollar value on how much the Taliban would be willing to pay Jones for doing exactly what he is doing now, how much would it be? Well, let’s think about it. The U.S. is spending, by latest estimates, roughly $133 million dollars per day on the war in Afghanistan. If Jones’ stunt is worth, say, ten AWDs (Afghan War Days) for the Taliban, the Taliban should be paying him around $1.33 billion.

Of course any American citizen idiotic enough to burn islamic bibles at a time like this is clearly not intelligent enough to organize a wallet, never mind knowing how to keep a bank account, to it’s not clear how the Taliban would get the money to that dribbling idiot even if they wanted to. But they sure must be happy to have him on their side!

The best we can do at this point is to stop shooting ourselves in the foot. Cut out the idiotic protests of community centers built by people who hate the Taliban even more than we do. Let the world know, in no uncertain terms, that three hundred million people in this country — whatever their political affiliation — are utterly disgusted by buffoons like pastor Terry Jones.

And come together as a nation on this day of remembrance to denounce those politicians in this country who can’t be bothered to know the difference between one Muslim and another — whether that politician be Sarah Palin or Howard Dean.