Interactive Text

Our kids are no strangers to computer games. While we’re very selective about what they play, and limit their computer time to about half an hour a day, their world at school and the world they’re growing up into is being shaped by computer-based media.

At home, they’re playing with Minecraft, Kerbal Space Programme, Into Space, Light Bot and Scratch. Each has some level of educational merit; due to playing Minecraft our kids have asked questions about and shown an interest in coal, ore, or even animal husbandry. The games span a variety of genres – from first person experiences, to flight simulation, to arcade, logic puzzles and programming. They’re rich in colour and art – which of course makes them appealing, as well as competitive in a modern computer games market.

But it got me thinking – there is a type of game kids aren’t really exposed to today: text adventures. Games where the story’s special effects are formed in the player’s mind. They were popular thirty years ago – but quickly died out as the computer entertainment industry grew.

I wanted to introduce our seven year old to this game type. But at his age, something like Zork would be, well, too much. He needed something much simpler.

So I put together a very simple text adventure in Ruby, in which he’s in his room, smells smoke and has to get out of the house. It’s just a maze – there’s nothing really to do but enter in compass directions and try and leave the house – and there’s only five ‘rooms’.

There were no graphics, no art. Just white text on a black background. He had to read the story and make decisions based on what he read. And sure enough, a minute or two later, he’d reached the end. His reaction: “That was awesome!”

Watching him get immersed in an interactive story was fascinating. The compulsion to keep playing was generated by his own reading and imagination. And it got me thinking – have we lost something along the way, with computer entertainment? Have we so diluted story and imagination with pretty pictures, that we’ve forgotten just how great these old games used to be?

I’m tempted to find out – either by writing another for him, or by exploring a site I just found (which saves me making my own!): Quest appears to be free, and allows you to create your own text adventure and share it with others. I might just have to try it out on the seven year old again!

 

Having the Same Name doesn’t make you the Same Person

My kids are quite young. One is in second grade, the other has recently started in Kindergarten a few days a week. As a parent this is a fascinating time because I can watch their horizons expand on an almost day to day basis. Things that we as adults take for granted are as yet completely undiscovered by the kids, and there’s some joy and occasionally a little hilarity when they discover something new.

Although names can work a little different in some cultures, in ours it’s fairly common for our given name to be, well, not exactly unique. Instead, it often has some history or meaning to it that seemed appropriate to our parents at the time and, perhaps, goes on to shape us a little as we age (which I’m sure is an engrossing subject in itself). At three years old, though, there’s a very good chance we’ve never met anyone else with our given names. So what went through our heads that first time? Did we for a moment wonder if they were us? I somehow doubt it; I think that at most, we only sensed some kindred bond (or, if the other person was annoying, perhaps a small sense of betrayal).

So I find it amusing when I catch myself expecting other things with the same name to be the same.

Recently, I had the good fortune to watch the recent Les Misérables film on bluray. The musical has been a favourite of mine since the 1980’s, when I studied it for a month before watching the original production on tour. I have the musical on CD (well, transferred to MP3 these days) and could probably sing through almost the entire musical from memory. The prospect of adding massive setpieces to the musical and stepping beyond the stage was more than a little alluring, and so it was with high hopes that I sat down to watch it.

Well, as you might imagine, it wasn’t what I was expecting. Yes, there’s some great imagery, and getting closer to the performers than you can at a theatre certainly opened up more room for appreciating the performance. But… it was different.

They added a song. They cut some parts out. They changed some words here and there. One part that stood out towards the end, which I couldn’t get my head around, was the duet between Cosette and Marius which, in the musical, includes these verses:

Cosette: Every day, you walk with stronger step, you walk with longer step, the worst is over.

Marius: Every day, I wonder every day, who was it brought me here from the barricade.

Cosette: Don’t think about it Marius, with all the years ahead of us, I will never go away, and we will be together every day.

In the musical, this verse structure makes sense: Cosette says something about Marius’ condition, Marius takes that and turns it to show his ongoing frustration at not really knowing why he’s the only one left alive from the barricade, and Cosette responds, trying to ease his mind (and demonstrating she doesn’t really understand what’s bugging him). It’s touching, it’s characters talking across purposes, and in my opinion it works.

In the film, this same duet is sung, except… they cut out Marius’ verse above. Now, Cosette says something, and then she answers herself, and it doesn’t even make sense. Seriously? Did they cut this because they needed to make the film four seconds shorter?

And don’t even get me started on Russell Crowe’s singing.

So things like this bugged me, and it took perhaps a day for me to come to a realisation.

Having the Same Name doesn’t make it the Same Story.

Together, the film and musical can form a larger, more complete story in our heads. They’re complimentary; visuals from the film, or Anne Hathaway’s I Dreamed a Dream add to and inform our enjoyment of the story in its other media.

It was probably a good realisation to come to about then, since a few days later I finally got around to watching the film version of one of the books I most enjoyed reading recently.

So when Cloud Atlas showed grim determination at staying, well, vaguely related to the novel I wasn’t quite so annoyed. If anything, it reaffirmed my appreciation of the original story in its written form.

Which makes me think I should probably read a certain novel by Victor Hugo one of these days…

 

Apoapsis

Being a parent has its memorable moments. For me, one of these is just where innocent curiosity can lead a six year old. Being asked, while out walking in the bush, what the magpie just said (because Dad must be able to understand birds even if I can’t, right?) will stick with me for a long time.

Communicating with young kids is something I find an enjoyable challenge. They don’t have the same set of primers an adult would have if we discussed a particular topic, so it forces me to break things down into first principles, use simple language, and often accept that the explanation that best gives the sense of the answer is what they’re likely to be able to digest and use, even if it’s not entirely accurate.

One of the topics that still prompts curious questions is how the moon, sun and so on stays in the sky. Explaining orbital mechanics to a six year old with notions of swinging things around themselves sounds obvious, but they’re not going to easily make the connection between a bucket of water and the moon. Try to explain transfer orbits and, well, despite many evenings watching space programme documentaries with the old man, their eyes glaze over and ‘Yes, Dad’ and they’re off to draw on the walls or something.

Heck, until recently I don’t even think I really had that good of an understanding of transfer orbits.

Enter Kerbal Space Programme, a space simulation / sandbox I stumbled across recently. Essentially a rocket science lab, in its free demo form you can build various simple rockets, launch them into orbit and perform numerous orbital manoeuvres using a handy orbital planning system. Suddenly, burning at periapsis to raise your apoapsis can be demonstrated practically, rather than just with formulae and diagrams on the whiteboard; conserving fuel, understanding ISP and delta-V or even managing space junk becomes something you can experience interactively.

And accidentally stranding your cute Kerbals in space leads to some interesting reflections on just how risky – and what an engineering triumph – the early era of manned space flight was.

Mind you, these days, while manned space flight is still far from routine, at least it’s progressed to the stage where it can serve as a venue for a music video. You can’t do this in Kerbal Space Programme…

In other news, hopefully things are returning to normal around here. Maybe I’m reaching my own apoapsis – and pretty soon I can start back down and get back into it.

What a Month

My blog has been looking a little neglected this last month as life seems to have hit overdrive.

 

The TLDR version: I got a new job, am riding motorcycles again, ordering online is weird, and David Farland Needs Your Help.

Things I planned to blog about these last four weeks (but then didn’t, somehow) included:

Changing Jobs

The Day JobN morphed into The Day JobN+1 just recently, which in large part accounts for the relative silence on this blog. While my schedule exploded and is gradually being reassembled into a new shape, the new job has presented new opportunities: While I’m still developing software, it’s in a new industry, new language and using a completely new toolchain. That, and working with a new and very different group of people means new and exciting opportunities to learn and grow.

Motorcycling

I like to think of my blog as a way to share my own experiences and opinions in a little more formal setting than, say, facebook. But it also serves me in another way – it’s a chance for me to explore my own ideas, hash them out, and have them around for reference. A few months ago I posted an article about giving up, in which I took a couple of personal examples of failure – one in a glider and another on a motorcycle, examined my responses to each, and concluded that it’s better to pick up, dust off, and try again if at all we can.

After writing this, I started thinking more about the motorcycle incident I had four years ago and grew increasingly dissatisfied with my I-won’t-ride response to it. Now I’m not saying that it was wrong to quit – I think I needed to stop riding for a while afterwards because I really wasn’t in the right headspace for it. But the time had come, I felt, to ride again. So I spent some time looking around, and eventually bought a six-year-old motorcycle. I’ve yet to work out a parking arrangement at The Day JobN+1, so the bike only gets used on weekends, and it probably took a week or so to get comfortable on it again; but goodness – I do still love to ride.

Ordering Online

The motorcycle also presented an opportunity to do some online shopping. I’d sold some of my old motorcycle gear and so needed to pick up some new stuff. After doing a ton of research I decided on, as a good fit for my riding needs, budget and comfort, a certain set of gear which wasn’t available from local retailers (this not being odd, since due to Perth’s isolation we tend to be off the radar for many distributors).

In Australia, our options when buying online usually amount to either:

  • Buy from an Australian distributor online,
  • Buy from overseas, either in the US or Asia, for between 15-50% less.

The way in which manufacturers and distributors price items for Australians has been under scrutiny here recently – Apple and Microsoft were called in to answer questions over their pricing policies here for digital content – which costs the supplier no additional freight or other charges to reach our market.

The local distributor was going to charge about $350 more for what I wanted than if I ordered from the US and had it shipped by fedex. So I ordered from the US shop.

I got an email the next day saying that the manufacturer wouldn’t allow them to ship to Australia due to their distributor agreement.

Nice! So, it looked like I was going to be taxed a little extra for living in Australia. Again. So I went to order on the Australian distributor’s site, only to find that the ordering options didn’t allow for nearly half of the specifications I could apply to the US distributor’s site, which meant I couldn’t choose colour, or certain sizes, and so on. So I sent the distributor a politely worded request for information on what I really wanted (instead of the limited options on their site) – and shared my frustrations with ordering from their site.

They came back the next day and my questions were answered – and they’d provided an offer which was about $150 less than what the US distributor was going to charge – about $500 off the retail price.

Which makes me wonder – is talking to the distributor the only way to get a good deal? Is online ordering really just for chumps? If the online ordering industry kills off retail chains, will online prices just rise back to what the retailers were charging?

David Farland and Writers of the Future

The Writers of the Future workshop is on again at the moment in Sunny LA, and I’m sparing a thought for the participants as they get run through the workshop material, lectures and event. I found it a very packed week back in 2011.

But even more so I’m particularly keeping David Wolverton (David Farland) in my thoughts. David, who lectured when I attended WotF two years ago, has taken over from the late K.D. Wentworth as one of the writers running the workshop. About a week ago, David’s son Ben suffered massive injuries following a longboarding accident, and has been in an induced coma ever since. Having experienced a loved one be through something very similar a few years ago, I know how traumatic this can be for family – and I can only imagine how hard it must be for David to be away from Ben in order to carry out his responsibilities in LA. So I hope that the prognosis is good, Ben can start the long road to recovery, and wish David all the best during this difficult time.

And if you want to help out, you can find one way to help the Wolverton’s here on David’s site.

Needs Rationalising

Kat suggests that before I buy any more RC aircraft, I rationalise my existing fleet*. When she says ‘rationalise’ why do I hear ‘crash’**?

Hey, maybe I could find a way to crash impressively…

* ‘fleet’ makes it sound much more impressive than it is.
** So far my record with fixed-wing RC is pretty good – the closest I came to wrecking one was when it got damaged in the car. Those little indoor helicopters though, are another matter, but they don’t really count, do they?

Learning to Think

Until yesterday I’d somehow missed the whole code.org phenomenon. So it was with both surprise and a little pleasure that I came across this video.

My opinion is undoubtably coloured by the fact that coding has been good to me these last 20 years. But even before I began my career I was coding for fun at school, and it’s partly an effect of this style of coding – learning analytical skills – that I think the video promotes best.

Developing the confidence to know that we can tackle any problem, the skill to break it down into manageable processes and the diligence to tackle them one by one through to completion is, I think, something that coding affords young people in a ready-made package.

And while my kids are a bit young to be coding in Java or C or LISP, not long ago we discovered Light Bot 2 (a fullscreen link may also work), in which they can “program” an on-screen robot through a series of mazes, using blocks representing its discrete actions. And surprisingly, at ages 4 and 7, both kids can get quite far through it.

I’m not expecting my kids to become programmers. But showing them a little of how computers work, and making it fun, can only be enabling.

 

 

Happy Hallmark Day

So if you’re into that sort of thing, today’s Valentine’s day. While some blokes struggle home with a box of melted chocolates and a bunch of wilted violets for their One True Love, others take to facebook, twitter or the local pub to complain about the whole issue of entitlement and expectations, or just the fact they’re single.

In fact I lump Valentines into much the same category as Halloween – it’s not quite official or big enough to compete with Easter and Christmas, but it’s trying. It’s the little holiday that could – the one that sneaks up on you and you find you’ve completely forgotten about it until a week before. And when you do find out about it, you’re all like Do I really care?

Though I suppose there is at least one difference. I think most of us guys in long term relationships try to remember to keep the relationship going throughout the year; it beats an annual Holy crap I need to remember to tell this person they are of some value to me. Which is a little different than Halloween – I can’t say I routinely carve faces into pumpkins to remind everyone just how much of a whacko I am.

‘cos they already know.

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Gazing Upward

Last week I touched on Passion and linked to an article which suggests it’s not necessarily a universal attribute of all people. I’m not sure I completely agree: I think for some of us there’s a passionate, empathetic and emotional being trapped, for one reason or another, beneath a thin, hard barrier we’ve grown comfortable maintaining. Exploring the dimensions of that topic will take more space than I’m prepared to put in this week’s post, but I’ll go with the notion that passion, empathy and emotion are present in all of us. I think it’s art’s ability to draw on this in ourselves which makes it compelling, turning a piece of music, a film or a novel into a deeply personal experience.

I’ve spent far too little time reading poetry; recently I was reminded of how poetry can tap into our emotional core in only a few words.

I encountered a reference to John Gillespie Magee Jr’s poem High Flight. While it elicits well the passion and romance of flight, to me the poem is also bittersweet: I can’t help but recall that Magee died in a mid-air collision aged only nineteen, or recalling Ronald Reagan’s quotation of the first and last lines of the poem following the Challenger disaster in 1986. In it’s full form, it reaches beyond the familiar Reagan sound-bite; in absence of the absurd contrast of a 1984 Bloom County comic it’s allowed to be itself: pure, undiluted and transcendent.

Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I’ve climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
of sun-split clouds, — and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of — wheeled and soared and swung
High in the sunlit silence. Hov’ring there,
I’ve chased the shouting wind along, and flung
My eager craft through footless halls of air….

 

Up, up the long, delirious, burning blue
I’ve topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace.
Where never lark, or even eagle flew —
And, while with silent, lifting mind I’ve trod
The high untrespassed sanctity of space,
– Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.

For humanity, learning to fly over these last hundred-and-some years has come at a great  cost in personal tragedies. When we join the queue at the ticket counter or are stuck waiting on the tarmac I think we’re apt to forget the passion and blood spent to get us to our interstate meeting or holiday.

Our newfound ability to fly isn’t always tragic, bittersweet or even routine. Sometimes, like a good poem, it’s inspiring.

Cogs and Creativity

Preferring to watch movies on bluray, I tend to live behind the curve a bit when it comes to cinema. As a result it was only recently that I managed to see the film Hugo (based on Brian Selznick’s The Invention of Hugo Cabret). While I enjoyed the automaton (I’ve linked to Maillardet’s automaton before) and setting, it was this somewhat existential, thematic line delivered by Asa Butterfield (Hugo Cabret) which quite caught my attention at the time:

Everything has a purpose, clocks tell you the time, trains takes you to places. I’d imagine the whole world was one big machine. Machines never come with any extra parts, you know. They always come with the exact amount they need. So I figured if the entire world was one big machine… I couldn’t be an extra part. I had to be here for some reason.

I like the sentiment this evokes, and I suspect it’s just as powerful, if not more so, to younger audiences. Fitting in – and knowing where we fit – is a fairly common human desire, and in a big and often impersonal world can be quite a scary concept.

But Hugo is about more than just fitting in – it’s about realising one’s dreams. Hugo Cabret is starting out his life, he has a dream he wants to realise; other characters show us other aspects of this theme – such as what happens when we’ve realised this dream and then had it taken away from us, or how not realising it changes us as we age.

So it was the treatment of Georges Méliès, the once-great and now-obscure entertainer, film maker and engineer which I found particularly inspiring.

If you’ve ever wondered where your dreams come from, you look around… this is where they’re made.

A month ago, my wife sent me a link to an article by Steven Piziks on Passion and Ambition. Piziks suggests that passion and ambition aren’t universal qualities, and that ‘motivational’ catchphrases such as Follow your passion, might sound great to audiences but often fail to prove actionable.

Converting ambition into action is often a solitary activity – it stands to reason that if most of the people around you don’t share your passion and ambition then you’re going to be going it alone. In fiction this can give us the stoic, strong and silent creative type: In Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead, her paragon of creative virtue, Howard Roark, provides a gold mine of Creative-vs-Rest-of-the-World quotes, one of the most memorable (to me at least) being this response when Roark is encouraged to hire an attorney:

There are some rules I’m perfectly willing to obey. I’m willing to wear the kind of clothes everybody wears, to eat the same food and use the same subways. But there are some things which I can’t do their way — and this is one of them.

In Hugo, Georges’ frustration and disillusionment with a war-weary public sees him abandon his passion for film, an abandonment that is hugely self destructive and which I still find one of the most powerful elements of the film. Because unlike Howard Roark, Georges isn’t intended to be an infallible, one-dimensional foil. Rather, he’s a contemporary fiction character: a conflicted, human person.

If Hugo Cabret’s character arc thematically answers How might you achieve your dream?, then Georges Méliès’ asks what do you do when you’ve lost it?

Hugo’s conclusions probably shouldn’t be taken as career advice – I’m pretty sure there should be a clear delineation between self-help and story. However as an illustration of the effects of creativity, ambition and passion on human beings I think this film managed to fit quite a lot under the hood.

And I do like me a little wish fulfilment.

And a road that leads to awesome.

 

On Sucking

January four years ago I had a little lesson in, among other things, self criticism.

I was tired, from a combination of a new three month old addition to our family, the silly season’s social commitments, several days of 40°C without – at that time – airconditioning at home. Having little chance to ride the motorcycle in the past fortnight I’d organised with a friend to ride through the bush from Perth to York this particular Sunday.

Some images from that ride would have been at home in a documentary: Two wedge-tailed eagles eating a feral piglet in the middle of the road, a pair of kangaroos hopping across our path, or a steep sandy slope that our bikes (which had road tyres) weren’t really equipped for.

But it was another 40°C day and I was starting to question why I’d gone riding on such a hot day. As the ride wore on, conditions got rougher and our speed dropped, and I started to question the sanity of our schedule. Were we going to make it to lunch in York after all? Or would we be there for dinner? Would my riding buddy be annoyed at the pace? Would the bike overheat if I’m riding so slow in these conditions?

Then the GPS showed a sealed road up ahead and around a corner. At the same time we turned onto some decent graded gravel. I opened the throttle and picked up the pace.

Then I crested a hill. The hill.

About a minute later my riding buddy took the following photo from the top.

bike 025

As I picked that bad line, the front wheel dug in and I found myself airborne, there was an overwhelming feeling of “Gosh, what an idiot” and “This is so embarrassing.”

Riding the broken motorcycle back is a story in itself, but that’s not for here.

I now have a piece of titanium in my right foot and, I have hoped, a healthier degree of self-analysis when it comes to get-there-itis, analysing tiredness, skill and planning.

This weekend I got to ask whether I’ve truly learned when to listen to the internal critic.

I had my first solo flight since August. A busy schedule on the weekends, holidays overseas, bad weather and whatever else meant that I hadn’t been able to fly very much in the last five months, so I was really looking forward to Sunday. Perfect weather for soaring and I hoped for a nice long flight.

Check ride went well, so I fitted my GoPro camera where I could completely ignore it during the flight. Then off I went, being towed up 2,700′ and climbing another 1000′ in a thermal before deciding to leave the lift and head to the west to stay upwind.

(For the uninitiated, a glider flies by – on average – staying in air that’s moving upward faster than the aircraft is descending. It was by all accounts a buoyant day with lift to spare, so my theory was that if I thermalled off to the west, the prevailing westerlies would tend to keep me within easy reach of the airfield area.)

VSI

The image to the right is snipped from the video. The instrument on the top is the variometer, which indicates the vertical movement of the air through which I’m currently flying. As I’ve been heading west it’s started pointing down further and further until I’m in a good 10kt downdraft with no end in sight.

Crunch time comes, I’ve lost 1,300′ and I decide there’s no way I can be here any longer. A rapid U-turn and I’m flying the aircraft back to the airport, knowing I’ve got to fly through all that sink again to get back to the field. At least I have the wind on my side, and in a pinch I can land in several non-optimal locations there if I need to.

Final approach, made worse by turbulence, is hairy but the touchdown is perfect and I’m able to roll to a stop where I want to be. Nevertheless, I’m feeling shaken up by the flight:

  • Why did I leave lift early?
  • Should I have turned back to lift sooner?
  • I entered the circuit low, which cramped everything up much more than the more comfortable, relaxed circuits I’m used to. Should I have landed on the cross strip, or even in the opposite direction?
  • I was trying to set up for a landing at the flight line so I could go again. By pressuring myself to do that, was I also cramping that final approach and adding unnecessary risk?
  • Couldn’t I have managed a flight longer than 13 minutes?

Four years after my motorcycle incident I find I’m frustrated at my performance and the internal critic is in full swing. And its best question is am I letting a sequence of small mistakes contribute to a potentially much more disastrous outcome?

Some discussion with the instructor, a little soul searching and I come to a few realisations.

  • There’s no mission, no goal I must achieve on this flight. I’m here to enjoy myself.
  • It’s a sport: You fail? So what. Try again.
  • If you’ve stopped learning, you should stop flying. And you can’t learn if you know it all already.
  • I had other options available should conditions have deteriorated further.

So after a short break I went for another flight. This time I stayed in the lift. After attaining 9,200 feet altitude – the highest I’ve been in a glider so far – there was no concern about whether I’d reach the airport. I only landed, nearly two hours later, after I ran out of water, had watched all the cross-country pilots returning and began to wonder if I’d be hangaring the plane by myself.

9200feet

The day’s two flights were instructional, and a gentle reminder of the two-sided nature to self-criticism. Yes, it has its place in avoiding complacency, or getting so stuck in the zone or white-line fever that we forget planning and safety. But it also demonstrated how close it can come to being an emotional destabiliser, and how easy it is to have a bad run and turn around and stop playing.

When Jeff Atwood wrote recently on the suicide of Aaron Swartz, he drew some parallels with ragequitting. And while I think the circumstances surrounding Aaron’s tragic death are more complex than any blog post could hope to address, I do wonder if Jeff’s concerns over ragequitting in general touches on this aspect of self-criticism.

Ambitious, goal driven people can be very self-critical, and failure in sight of our biggest critic (ourselves) easily leads to emotional decision making – fear to keep playing (what if I fail), or questioning our identity (am I cut out to be a pilot-motorcyclist-programmer-writer-artist-whatever). One of the biggest causes of writer’s block can simply be the internal editor telling us that the first words on the page are going to suck.

If I’d given up after the first flight I could have gone home, convinced that the internal critic was right, and that giving up was the safest option. Instead I said to myself yes it might all go wrong, and then fronted up and flew again to – literally – reach new heights.

And perhaps that’s at the heart of resilience, this giving ourselves permission to suck, make mistakes or risk annoying people.

Because perhaps only when we embrace failure ahead of time do we free ourselves to really achieve.