Video Games Considered Not Really Harmful

I don’t know how many times I’ve had that discussion where the person on the other side of the debate thinks that all video games are about killing space aliens. OK. I do know how many. It’s a lot.

Most of those people – a few of Dylan’s teachers, for example, not to mention many of his friends’ parents – have no idea that games as rich as Age of Empires or Ultima Online or Rome:Total War exist. As a result, when they do let their kids near a video game, they are stuck with rubbish like Super Smash Brothers because their tastes never evolve to anything more sophisticated. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.

To be sure, massive and complex games have their own risks as we we discovered when we almost lost Dylan inside Runescape a couple of years ago. Expecting a ten year old to have the social skills to interact with hundreds of other players in an imaginary world or to have the economic skills run a trading business or to have the leadership skills to coordinate a team of adventurers battling a ferocious monster…well, we just expected too much of him. But one day he will have those skills. One day he will run a lead a raiding party in an imaginary world or start a successful business in a virtual economy or devise a strategy to defeat the toughest of dragons. One day – but not yet. He has to prepare for that day.

Many parents are down on video games because they think of them as mostly just mindless button pushing. The opposite is true. The real danger is that the best video games are too sophisticated for an impressionable young mind to handle. Certainly more sophisticated than any TV show their parents ever sat in front of.

So, it’s nice to finally, after thirty-something years, start reading positive articles about video games in the mainstream press. Sure, most of the articles are still about the dangers of seeing someone’s pixelated bottom in Grand Theft Auto but that’s why the rare few positive articles like this one in the Wall Street Journal are such a pleasant change.

One the best articles I have read in a while, though, is this one at Huffinton Post entitled Why Your Kids Should Play More Video Games. Imagine being the mother who tries to prevent her teenage son from learning Shakespeare so that he can get ahead in a baseball game:

Last week my son raced past me on the stairs just as I was coming up to tell him, as usual, to turn off the TV.
“I gotta find out what was Shakespeare’s most popular comedy,” he called out, by way of explanation.
“Is this for homework?”
“No. My player is writing his exams. If he fails he’ll be cut from the team.”

and then tries to forbid him from studying for that exam. If you are smart you will imagine yourself saying, like she did:

His eyes dart to the screen. “Can I just finish writing my exam?”
I check my watch. “Dinner’s going to be a little while. Why don’t you play some more?”

RSS Reader Update

I just tried Sage – a Firefox extension for reading RSS feeds. It’s very beautiful – like an ornate teapot made of chocolate.

Unfortunately it looks like no one ever actually considered using it for, like, reading RSS feeds. There is no way to hide the stuff you have already read. You can mark it read but that doesn’t make it go away.


Next-Generation Joysticks

According to the Neurophilosopher a patient with epilepsy was fitted with a BCI2000, a device that monitors brain activity, to monitor his seizures.

Because the patient was required to remain connected to the BCI until he had a seizure, engineers programmed Atari software [space invaders] so that it was compatible with the device, making the wait more entertaining for the patient.

“He cleared out the whole level one basically on brain control,” says Eric C. Leuthardt, an assistant professor of neurosurgery involved in the work. “He learned almost instantaneously. We then gave him a more challenging version…and he mastered two levels there playing only with his imagination.”

The Wii will be out of date before it even ships on November 17.

need a new RSS reader…

If there is one application for which a web browser is supremely well-suited it’s reading web pages. That’s why I was happy to use Google’s news reader for reading blogs. Every previous RSS client I had tried behaved as though RSS was “just like reading email” and modelled their client on mail clients. It’s not like reading mail.

Google’s was the first client that was different. Apart from the flaw that meant you had to read the newest entries first, it was perfect. Sure, sure – the subscription management was awful, but the rest was great.

Anyway, they have a new version and it looks like their main goal was to “make it just like all the other RSS clients”. Well, they succeeded and it sucks.

I stuck with it for a week but I can’t get the hang of it and I’m looking for a new RSS client.

Any suggestions?

Why Would Johnny Want to Code in BASIC?

This article in Salon mourns the death of BASIC.

Only, quietly and without fanfare, or even any comment or notice by software pundits, we have drifted into a situation where almost none of the millions of personal computers in America offers a line-programming language simple enough for kids to pick up fast. Not even the one that was a software lingua franca on nearly all machines, only a decade or so ago. And that is not only a problem for Ben and me; it is a problem for our nation and civilization.

I was a part of that generation that started out with BASIC. It was great. 30 years ago.

About now you are probably shouting, like I did,

What about Ruby??

You can do exactly all the old command-liney stuff that David Brin is all teary-eyed about in Ruby> You can even write the same crap code that you could with BASIC. The book, Learn to Program, that I bought Dylan could easily have been based on BASIC – but it wasn’t. It was based on Ruby and it was all the better for it.
But Brin explicitly dismisses Python and the like – presumably because they are not BASIC-ey enough.

Personally I think BASIC belongs in the dustbin of history and if David Brin wants to teach his son to write crap code, he can teach him Perl. For the rest of our children, there is Ruby and Python and Squeak and Logo.

Mighty Mouse

All the UI gurus say that a good user interface should make the user feel in control. This firefox extension, Mouse Gestures, makes me feel mighty! Swish! You go back. Swosh! You go forward. Slash! That stupid image is gone.

Once you get the hang of it, you can draw a big ‘S’ to view source or an ‘M’ to see the meta-data but don’t try to learn them all at once.

Start simple. Swish, swosh and slash. Be mighty too!

Monty Hall in Squeak

Over at, I wrote about the Monty Hall problem and how I was convinced of the answer by an unused variable in my Java simulation.

Markus wrote a nice simulation in Squeak (dunno what it will do if you don’t have squeak installed but it makes a good excuse for you to go get it).

I am always on the lookout for ideas for a science project for Dylan. For me, the ideal kid’s science project has a hypothesis that

  1. will almost certainly be wrong
  2. can be tested empirically
  3. can be proven mathematically

with extra credit if you can write a computer simulation of it. Dylan’s project last year was “What should you do if draw three cards to an inside straight in poker?”. He said you should raise. I usually beat him at poker 🙂