Friday, June 30, 2017

Addictive Entertainment

My three-year-old son James and I have been playing the video game Super Mario 3D World a lot recently.  It is cooperative play where we are on the same team but I always have to be very careful not to score more points than him.  Let the wookie win.

Even though we had not met in twenty-seven years, I recognized one of my favorite electrical engineering college professors while we were standing in line at the marina diner recently.  He remembered that I was into playing and programming computer games.  I told him that after continuing my education by earning a Masters in Electrical Engineering, I had abandoned that industry to become a full-time game developer, including writing a book and teaching a university course on the subject.

When I was a professional game developer, I always felt a bit guilty about being a part of the entertainment industry.  If the players were not so busy playing, would they instead be doing real life activities such as building a better world for themselves and their children?  Or are games something you do to keep yourself content and out of trouble in between doing important things such as raising children and earning a living?

Games, unlike other forms of passive entertainment, are interactive and therefore can be won or lost based on player decisions.  Winning a game satisfies our craving for a sense of achievement by providing us with a stream of virtual goals.  I call games "pseudo-work" because they provide the good feeling of productive work but without any of the real-world tangible benefits.

If we repeatedly fail at a game, we become frustrated and quit playing because it is not providing the rush of success that we need as goal-seeking creatures.  Winning every now and then, however, can keep us playing indefinitely because intermittent reward is addictive.  Games are also addictive when they progressively increase in difficulty or complexity as this hooks into our love of learning and mastery.

I think all addictive entertainment, both interactive and passive, should provide at least some long-term benefits to the consumer such as education or exercise.  For example, an avid viewer of a zombie apocalypse television series might incidentally absorb a few tips about disaster preparedness and emergency survival.  By the time a player character reaches level fifty as a magical healer in a fantasy role playing game, the actual player should be able to pass a level one first aid certification.



Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Croft Academy

I mentioned to a friend that my children had their last day of school before summer break today.  He asked what I had planned for them.  I explained to him that in addition to various educational day camps, swimming, and sailing, my children will be participating in Croft Academy.

For my family, Croft Academy is an annual tradition of summer educational activities.  We encourage our children to spend a few minutes each day studying different topics by posting a daily checklist for each child on the side of our refrigerator.  Study areas include common subjects such as art, math, reading, and writing and sometimes student-specific activities such as keyboard typing, computer programming, driving practice, and standardized test preparation.


A major component of Croft Academy each year is Khan Academy.  This is a free website with video lectures and online quizzes on many educational topics.  The website tracks individual progress so that students can advance through the subjects in prerequisite order.

After moving a magnet from the "To-Do" column to the "Done" column for all topics on the daily checklist, the student is then free to play computer games and watch television.  Our school motto, "No fun until the work is done", is captured in this drawing created by a Croft Academy alumna some years ago back when she was enrolled.  As of this month, this former student, my daughter Ada, can now also boast that she is a graduate of the University of Texas at Arlington College of Nursing.


Saturday, April 29, 2017

Year of the Boat

This is becoming the year of the boat for our family.  My seventeen-year-old son Thomas and I have been learning to sail with the help of the Grapevine Sailing Club.  I am also learning how to do boat maintenance and repair.  Thomas used a bosun's chair for the first time under the supervision of our experienced slip neighbors.

Here are some pictures of Thomas learning to be a yachtsman.





Friday, March 31, 2017

Eternal Universe

I just finished listening to the audiobook A Universe from Nothing: Why There Is Something Rather Than Nothing by Lawrence M. Krauss.  As you might expect, the book does not live up to its title in full but it does give some depth to a number of science concepts that have been floating around in popular culture.  If you like the video How Far Can We Go? Limits of Humanity and want to know more, read this book.

One of the ideas touched upon very briefly in the book is that the Universe could have always been.  By the term Universe here, I mean whatever pre-existed and gave rise to the Big Bang, our current phase of existence, and whatever comes after.  I define the term Eternal Universe to mean a universe that goes on forever without an end and always was without a beginning.

I once attended a debate where a speaker gave the following argument in an attempt to make the  concept of an Eternal Universe that always was seem absurd.  He asked rhetorically, "If time never had a beginning but goes back to negative infinity, how would you ever get to now?"  I was disappointed that his opponent did not respond to this flourish but instead stuck to prepared arguments.

Here is how I would have responded.  Imagine that you are where you are now in some point in space.  You can imagine that this space extends from where you are out to an infinite distance in all directions.  Pick a direction and call that positive infinity.  Point in the opposite direction and call this negative infinity.

Imagine that I now ask you rhetorically, "If space never had a beginning but goes back to negative infinity, how would you ever get to here?"  You might easily reply, "I did not have to travel from negative infinity to get to here because I always was here".  The debater was relying upon the fact that most of his audience was used to thinking of time as something that flows forward in just one direction rather than something that is in all directions.



Sunday, February 26, 2017

Bellissimo

I participated in a Grapevine Sailing Club Frostbite Serices race again this month, this time as crew on a Catalina 30. While drinking hot cider with rum back at the slip after the race, I mentioned that I was in the market for a sailboat and that I had decided on a Catalina but I was uncertain as to which model.  My hostess mentioned that her friends were selling their Catalina 25 and that I could see it right then if I liked.  Three weeks later following a tour of the interior, a marine survey, an underwater hull inspection, and a test sail, I became the proud owner of the 1980 Catalina 25 sailboat "Bellissimo".

The Italian word "bellissimo" appears to translate directly to the masculine form of "very beautiful" which works for me as I have five very handsome sons.  The actual idiomatic use of the word appears to mean wonderful, marvelous, or a beautiful experience.  The previous owner explained to me that it was a familial greeting shared with her Italian siblings and that the word coincidentally included the family name of the orginal owner.

As Bellissimo is over thirty-five-years-old, it is considered to be an "antique" by Texas state law.  Another interesting fact about Texas state law is that Texas is one of the few states where the maximum width for a trailer that you can tow without an oversize load permit is less than eight feet six inches.  In Texas, it is eight feet zero inches, exactly the same as the beam of a Catalina 25.  So now I am in the market for a trailer and a vehicle to tow it.



Monday, January 30, 2017

Rounding the Mark

My new hobby is sailing. I have been practicing my knots and reading sailing books and magazines. I have had about twenty hours of sailing instruction on Grapevine Lake and Galveston Bay.

I spend countless hours looking at sailboats online. My wife Shannon has informed me that she wants me to stop talking to her about the relative merits of one model of boat over another. Sometimes, though, she will share with me what she might like in a boat when I show her video reviews of whatever model happens to be my current favorite.

I joined the Grapevine Sailing Club. This past weekend, I rode with three other club members in a powerboat to help position and retrieve the race course marks for the Frostbite Series regatta. Click on the photos that I took of the event below to see them full-size.