Via the CBC: Toronto will miss its target for reducing landfill waste because only 15% (!!) of apartment and condo buildings have green bins. 15% sounds pitiful, but one reason the figure is so low is that the drop in city revenues over the last 12 months has meant cutbacks in the green bin program. I wonder if this would be moving ahead faster if the city’s web site had a dashboard that included week-by-week stats?
Via several routes, I found the Learn you a Haskell for Greater Good tutorial (yes, that’s really its name). The humor is occasionally a bit forced, but it’s pretty good, and the author’s hand-drawn cartoons add a lot to it. I wish I was that talented: I hired an architecture student to do the diagrams for the Software Carpentry course, and “let” Jason Montojo do the illustrations for Practical Programming, but wished both times that I could do the work myself. Kudos to LHGG’s author for a job well done.
In 1976, a trainee teacher doing a rotation at my high school introduced several of us to the world of tabletop wargames. He was into World War II tank battles, but we were mostly science fiction fans, so it wasn’t long before we discovered Dungeons & Dragons. We played at lunch hour, and, being small-town boys in our mid-teens, skipped all the role-playing nonsense and went straight for the “good stuff”: traps, battles, spells, and gold.
The same store in Victoria that sold D&D stuff (there was only one at the time) also stocked a few SF games. We played Star Fleet Battles (a game of ship-to-ship combat) and Stellar Conquest (a turn-based empire-building game) for a while, but then we discovered Metagaming’s Microgame series, and never looked back. For half the cost of a record, we could get a paper-sized game that took about 45 minutes to play—perfect for lunch breaks.
Ogre was an early favorite. The simplest scenario pitted a nuclear-powered supertank against a mixed force of conventional tanks, armored hovercraft, artillery, and infantry. There wasn’t much strategy: the supertank player made a beeline for the objective while the other player sacrificed one unit after another to wear it down. Once the Ogre player had a few support units, though, the game became a lot more interesting. Should the Ogre charge forward as before, or provide covering fire for lighter units? Should the conventionally-armed player take a lot of artillery (powerful but unable to move), try to swarm the Ogre with hovercraft, or roll out some heavy tanks and hope to roll sixes? For the first time, I started to understand what the word “strategy” actually meant.
Metagaming produced almost two dozen Microgames before going bust. My personal favorites, WarpWar and IceWar, both had that knockout combination of strategy and lunch hour playtime. In WarpWar, players had to choose between building ships now or investing in R&D to build better ships later, with the added twist that each successive generation of ships was more powerful than its predecessors. It took several turns for ships to travel from one player’s home planet to the other’s, so the more successful you were, the more of a disadvantage your ships were at the next time they fought.
IceWar had several strategic twists, either of which would have made a lesser game interesting. The Russian force (which was attacking the Prudhoe Bay oilfiends across the Arctic icecap—remember, this was the 1970s) was invisible to the Americans until spotted by scouts or satellites, neither of which was subsequently useful. The Russian therefore had to pick a route that avoided detection, while the American had to decide how much to spend on early warning gear, and how much to spend on battle forces that could only be brought into play once the Russians were visible. The Russian player also had to choose a mix of forces (fast and vulnerable or slower-moving and more powerful) while the American could almost double the size of the defending force by investing in reserves, with the caveat that those reserves would arrive piecemeal during the fight. We played variation after variation, but never found a “one size beats all” strategy for either side.
Then I went to university, where majority opinion held that D&D and board games were for geeks. I was insecure enough about my geekiness to be swayed by that, and it was 15 years before I really got into games again. When I did, I more than made up for lost time with Quake III and Homeworld.
Quake III was an office game. Every Thursday, someone at Nevex would fire up a server and we’d spend an hour or so fragging each other. There was no strategy to speak of: you ran, you shot people, you swore a lot, and you respawned. I was never as good with a railgun as some people, but I still know the best spot for sniping on the Dredwerkz map.
And Homeworld: saints and small mercies, if there has ever been a better game, I haven’t found it. Do you race for heavy ships, taking the risk that your opponent will swarm you with smaller, cheaper ones before you’re ready? Do you burn ships attacking enemy resource collectors? Do you invest in fringe technologies like minelayers or cloak generators and hope to catch your enemy flatfooted? I still remember the first time I ran into the combination of mines, cloaks, and salvage corvettes; I remember even more vividly my next game against the same player, who took out my resource collectors with a swarm of attack bombers, then picked off my frigates one by one while I was frantically trying to decide how many of them to recycle in order to replace the lost RCs. He wasn’t playing chess or a first-person shooter: he was player poker, and I was falling for his bluffs one after another.
I still remember my last game, too. It was a carrier duel, which meant faster and more fluid play. We slugged it out and slugged it out until he was down to just a handful of fighters and a couple of support frigates. As I closed in for the kill, he rammed the frigates into my carrier, and boom, I was done. I looked for him online again a couple of nights later, and again a few days after that, but never saw him again.
The people I did see were ones I didn’t particularly want to play. Online anonymity seems to bring out the worst in some people, and by 2005 (six years after Homeworld‘s release) it seemed that almost everyone I bumped into used words like “nigger” and “faggot” the way I’d use “please” and “hello”. I’ve always cared more about the social side of gaming than about winning for its own sake: I’d rather lose and shake hands than win and be sworn at. Now that my daughter is old enough for me to get a full night’s sleep more often than not, I’ve tried getting back into a couple of games (Yahoo! Chess and Quake Online), but a couple or three weeks is always enough for me to decide that ignoring or putting up with abuse is a higher admission price than I’m willing to pay.
I’m not willing to give up yet, though. The Internet is a big place; there just has to be a game out there somewhere that combines fantasy or SF elements with real strategizing and a 30-to-45 minute playing time in an environment where people treat one another with at least a modicum of respect. Damned if I know how to find it, though; “courtesy” and “playability” aren’t things Google knows how to search for (at least, not yet). Maybe one day one of my ex-students will drop me a line to say, “Hey, try this out.” Until then, may your thieves always be stealthy, your hovercraft nimble, and your mothership safe from harm.
- The cross-country capstone projects are going well — most recently, one of the students has asked why students who can’t go five minutes without tweeting or updating their Facebook status fall silent when asked to communicate with one another in a course. It’s puzzling; comments on the post would be very welcome.
- Meanwhile, the Eclipse4Edu team is running an online survey to find out more about how students use IDEs.
- And I’ve updated my plans for redesigning the Software Carpentry course, and would appreciate feedback (particularly from anyone familiar with Wiggins & McTighe’s Understanding by Design). I’d also appreciate pointers to anyone who might fund it…
All of the students in my consulting course now have projects; most have met their customers and/or have some real data to play with. Lots of other news too:
- The City of Toronto is holding an Innovations Showcase on Nov 2-3 to brainstorm Gov 2.0 ideas. Online registration should open this coming Monday (Oct 19); hope to see you there.
- SeeClickFix have loaded 25,000 town boundaries into their database.
- There’s a Gov 2.0 Expo in Washington DC in May—it’d be cool to see some of our projects there.
- Good story in the Guardian about Gov 2.0 success in San Francisco.
- Not quite Gov 2.0, but worthwhile: Random Hacks of Kindness is getting open source developers to work on projects for disaster relief.
Finally, I’d like to thank everyone from the city and other organizations who has given us so much of their time: it’s been wonderful how many of you have been willing to help us out, and we’re very grateful.
I’ve been invited to give a talk at Michigan State University, and have a standing invitation to visit the University of Wisconsin in Madison. Twelve months ago, I would have booked a couple of flights and been done with it, but I’m trying to go a year without flying—when I calculated my carbon load in the spring, I discovered that it accounted for 85% of my impact. The best plan I’ve been able to come up with looks like this:
Frankly, it sucks. Toronto to Windsor by train, then Detroit to East Lansing by car (since my host is willing to come pick me up). From there to Madison is nine hours by bus, but with travel times like these I’m not likely to visit Chicago again any time soon, so I might as well stop for a day at Argonne National Laboratory, and if the timing works out (or if I make it work out) in Milwaukee for SIGCSE 2010. All told it would be eight nights away from family and almost 24 hours of actual travel time once you include the return trip, but what’s the alternative? I don’t have a lot of faith in carbon offset schemes, and big chunks of this itinerary simply can’t be done by train. I’m beginning to think that our future is going to be a slower and less frequent place than our present—that my generation may turn out to be the most widely traveled in both history past and history future.
What are the priorities of computer science? The question is motivated by discussion of “ICT4D” (Information and Communications Technologies for the Developing world). Quoting Guzdial, “…we focus on the solutions to the problems in computer science, where ICT4D is about the problems. As a computing educator, I hear repeatedly from teachers, ‘Computer science is problem-solving on computers!’ Yet, as Beki points out, we organize our discipline and our findings on characteristics of the solution, not the problem.”
How we teach introductory computer science is wrong. Guzdial actually means “how we teach programming”, and his target is the usual method of showing students a few programs, then asking them to write some. This is called “minimally-guided instruction”, and there’s now a lot of evidence to show that it’s a poor approach. Guzdial summarizes one of the first studies in the area:
There are two groups of students, each of which is shown two worked-out algebra problems. Our experimental group then gets eight more algebra problems, completely worked out. Our control group solves those eight more problems. As you might imagine, the control group takes five times as long to complete the eight problems than the experiment group takes to simply read them. Both groups then get new problems to solve. The experimental group solves the problems in half the time and with fewer errors than the control group. Not problem-solving leads to better problem-solving skills than those doing problem-solving.
He then quotes another:
After a half-century of advocacy associated with instruction using minimal guidance, it appears that there is no body of research supporting the technique. In so far as there is any evidence from controlled studies, it almost uniformly supports direct, strong instructional guidance rather than constructivist-based minimal guidance during the instruction of novice to intermediate learners.
Food for thought…