Into the middle of _Ready Player One_

Our online reading of near-future science fiction continues, as we work through Ernst Cline’s Ready Player One (previous posts).  With the post I’m 60% of the way along my reread.

As before I’ll offer a short plot sketch, some observations about the world, and lit prof notes.

Quick plot update: the quest for Halliday’s Easter egg continues. The narrator solves the first puzzle ever won in the game. More “gunters” then succeed in cracking parts of the mystery.  Our hero meets and angers the villainous Sixers online, who nearly kill him in real life.  Wade falls hard for Art5mis, who initially responds, then spurns him.  There are epic feats of 1980s nerdery.

Wade leaves school and his childhood home for Columbus, Ohio, there to seek the grail at all costs.

The world of Ready Player One gets fleshed out in even deeper dystopian detail.  As Wade leaves Oklahoma City we learn that “lawless badlands now exist… outside of the safety of large cities”.  Wade travels between them in an armored bus across “the deteriorating interstate highway system.” (Kindle location 2937)  “[T]he view was perpetually bleak, and each decaying, overcrowded city we rolled through looked just like the last.” (2960) Even in those cities he works with elaborate security measures, including an uber-armored door on his new apartment (3387).

The diseases we heard about in earlier chapters recur here with a sound of plague:

Parzival: You got parents?

Art5mis: They died.  The flu.  So i was raised by my grandparents.  You got parentage?

Parzival: No.  Mine are dead too.

Art5mis: It kinds sucks, doesn’t it?  Not having your parents around.

Parzival: Yeah.  But a lot of people are worse off than me. (3073)

It’s “the flu”, not “a flu” – i.e., a known and formidable specter.  Note, too, Parzival’s closing observation.  Things are worse for a lot of people.

Politics is useless.  “It didn’t matter who was in charge.  Those people were rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic and everyone knew it.”  Worse, there’s an echo of Idiocracy (2006): “the only people who could get elected were movie stars, reality TV personalities, or radical televangelists.” (3560)  Yes, laugh it up, 2016.

We learn that Ogden Morrow, Halliday’s other half, like Wozniak to Jobs, had criticized OASIS as a pointless escape from reality (2147).  Unsurprising for a guy who echoes Einstein and Santa Claus, the book seems to agree with him, observing that people no longer “physically travel… for business and pleasure” (2954) (see also 3531).

Joust game, photo by Emma Story

A key gaming detail in this section.

On technological politics: user behavior in OASIS is apparently uncontrolled (“There are no laws in the OASIS”, 2751).  In contrast, the villains want to add “[a]vatar content filters [and] stricter construction guidelines.  We’re going to make OASIS a better place” (2492).  This opposition feels very 1990s, and far removed from 2016’s debates about abuse online.  Put it this way: do many people see Twitter today as too like OASIS? Continue reading

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Portrait of a technology-using professor in 2016

Leading Lines podcast logoDerek Bruff just launched a podcast about teaching with technology, called Leading Lines (and if you don’t know Derek, you should.  He’s brilliant, thoughtful, and the world’s guru for teaching effectively with clickers).  Leading Lines is aimed at present-day teaching, with an eye on the future.

In Leading Lines’ second episode Derek interviews Corbette Doyle (faculty page; Twitter), a Vanderbilt University lecturer.  I’d like to focus on this episode for a blog post because I think Doyle is a grand example of a technology-using faculty member.   In conversation she starts off sounding like an early adopter, but eventually describes challenges and opportunities very much in the teaching mainstream.

Let’s get her early adopter identity out of the way.  Doyle mention buying a PC in the early 1980s, starting an early corporate intranet, and loving technology for how it improves work.  “I’m always exploring new technology,” she explains.  “I’m pretty adept at figuring it out.”  She complains about teenagers not being tech-savvy, reversing a more commonplace faculty attitude.

Some of the technologies she uses are those employed by only a minority of faculty.  Doyle makes screencast videos, for example, in part because of student appreciation.  She feeds these into a YouTube channel .  She also likes mobile, but not because of its affordances; instead, she finds that that’s where her students prefer to work.  “So many students are using their phones the majority of time.  That’s going to increase.”

Doyle is pro-open content, mostly to minimize student costs.  We know that it’s still only a small subset of faculty who follow this practice.

She loves reconfigurable learning spaces, especially for group work.  Is that early adopter practice in 2016, or has it become the mainstream?Corbette Doyle

At other times in the podcast lecturer Doyle sounds much closer to the mainstream.  She uses problem-based learning and group projects as a way of engaging students in active learning.  For example, in one class the first and last quarters are all problem-based projects.  She’s a constructivist, focused on students making learning through making meaning and exploration.

For technology, Doyle relies on clickers for polling.  Again, in 2016, that’s not bleeding edge but conventional.  The examples she gives are classic (by now) and reliable, such as quickly assessing student learning and especially using polls to stimulate small group discussion.

She also uses Google apps, including Forms for assessment, Docs for documents, Hangout for video discussion, and Google+ for encouraging students to share information and thoughts with each other, including for “what they’re learning outside of the class.”  G+ appeals to her as well for its visual nature (interesting) and being mobile friendly.  It’s her discussion forum.  (Many campuses have Google Apps.  Is Doyle an outlier?)

Overall, despite the many technologies she uses, Doyle is all about corralling complexity.  “It’s important to keep technology simple,” she insists, veering away from the early-adopter role.

Doyle finds two major technological problems today, starting with the challenge of assigning students to use multiple sites.  Students resent that – especially, as Bruff notes, when they are taking 3-4 other classes, which could lead to them having to access 8-25+ different sites and services.  This is one reason Doyle likes Google, as it’s a single location for so many services and so much content.

Doyle dislikes Blackboard, but is stuck with it.  “It is not attractive and is not user friendly.  It does not meet many of my needs.”  And yet that’s where she has to use certain content that she can’t find in open.  It’s also where she has to post grades.  Dealing with this LMS “is my struggle.”  But students like the ability to have everything in one Blackboard spot, “one stop shopping”.

Bruff and Doyle conclude by hoping for a single site that can contain everything they’d like to use in the classroom.  Sounds like a case for the next generation digital learning environment (NGDLE).

Overall, I found this Leading Lines podcast a very useful snapshot of a 2016 faculty member, one straddling the early adopter and mainstream roles.  And I look forward to subsequent episodes.

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Another Fairpoint internet failure; the struggle continues

I would really not prefer to blog about this.  Honestly, I have many, many other topics that excite and interest me, and which are probably of greater interest to you, my readers.  But America’s lame broadband situation is, alas, of political and historical significance.  And, once again, I’m prompted to write.

Fairpoint first decided to try broadband here in 2008Today our home internet went out.   Again. Both of our lines (one for the family, one for the business).  Simultaneously.

Yes, this is just one week after the last time Fairpoint broke our broadband.

As a good customer, I power cycled the routers.  No dice.  I tried multiple devices (PC, Mac, Android phone, XBox) on both internet connections.  Nothing.

So I called Fairpoint’s help line.  Over 40 minutes the very friendly representative couldn’t figure out the problem. They put in an order to send a technician by, but couldn’t say when they’d arrive.  As in what time, or what date.

Two hours later, after I’d packed up to move operations to a more reliable locale, the internet mysteriously came back on.  HURRAH!  The signal is iffy, and bursty, but still, HURRAH!

Still being a good customer, I called Fairpoint back so they wouldn’t send a technician out (whenever that might be) for no good reason. This phone representative was mystified, having no idea why the internet suddenly returned.

So we’re left with broadband that might or might not work, provided by a company who doesn’t know why it doesn’t work, and may or may not be able to send help at some unknown time. For Fairpoint customers internet connectivity is really like rain is for farmers: something we can only hope will serve us, and that we can neither control nor influence.  All we can do is watch, cope, and take advantage of the good times.  I’m beginning to understand ancient rituals of sacrifice.

Meanwhile, we and our townsfolk cannot fall back on cell phone connections, as coverage is at best spotty (Verizon, so I’m told, has a couple of footholds for a single bar apiece, somewhere) and at average nonexistent.

So rather than, say, writing on other subjects or, say, doing my actual job, I’m spending time connecting with a bunch of state agencies and local people to learn more about the situation.  Maybe some collective action can improve things.

Those contacts include:

What doesn’t work?

  • Any digital communication with our ISP, hilariously.  While they do, in fact, tweet, they do not deign to actually answer tweets from their putative customers.  They don’t read Reddit’s Vermont board, not this blog, nor FrontPorchForum.
  • Neither state gubernatorial candidate.  We reached out to Sue Minter (Dem) and Phil Scott (GOP) and haven’t heard back from either one.
  • Asking the state to influence Fairpoint.  It turns out that the state has zero regulatory leverage over this company.

What next?

  1. The state’s Department of Public Service would like to hold an informational meeting in our town, so I’m looking into that.
  2. Contacting VTel, a state initiative to bring connectivity to “the most rural areas”.
  3. Contacting the feds, the FCC.
  4. Begging Google for fiber (thanks, Alan).
  5. I’ll contact local news media to see if there’s any interest in this as a story.
  6. I’ll see what Fairpoint will do next.  Maybe they can get some federal funding to improve things.
  7. Befriend the next technician we see (thanks, csbv).

Overall, this is intolerable.  I’ve lost track of how many hours I’ve spent dealing with Fairpoint’s incompetence: helping them troubleshoot their own problems, researching issues, driving around the state trying to find broadband.  I cannot run a business like this.

We may have to get an office in another town.  Or consider moving.

Any thoughts or suggestions?

EDITED TO ADD: Enter our local savior, North Branch Networks.  This local provider came to our house tonight to make sure their network was up.  The CEO fixed a hardware glitch and we were back in business.  That’s what I’m using now, in fact.  So our local startup, a very effective and DIY operation, succeeds where all the rest fail.

I’m going to see how much household and business needs we can run through it.

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Starting to read _Ready Player One_

Our near-future science fiction book club is now reading Ernst Cline’s Ready Player One.  Here are my notes and reflections for the first 20% or so.

I’ll begin with a quick intro, then dive into the book, and conclude with the kind of notes we obsessive lit profs take.

I’ve read the book before, but will try to post as if I’m reading it for the first time.

Quick intro:

Our teenage hero lives in a dystopian near future, when he’s not escaping to play a treasure hunt game in a globe-spanning virtual world.  Said hero and the game’s creator share an obsession with the 1980s, which also shapes the game.

The first 20% of the book sets up the world and gets Wade started on his quest.

Ready Player One, cover art

The future world

The world is a grim one.  Rather, the physical world is grim, and always appears horribly.

The ongoing energy crisis.  Catastrophic climate change.  Widespread famine, poverty, and disease.  Half a dozen wars.  You know: “dogs and cats living together…mass hysteria!” (Kindle location 84)

An energy crisis knocked the world back (317), reminding me of this classic 1980s movie:

Beyond the fuel crash, the Great Recession “was now entering its third decade, and unemployment was still at a record high” (932).  It took a generation for this combined collapse to occur, witnessed and lived through by Wade’s mother (“She’s been born into a world of plenty, then had to watch it all slowly vanish”, 342).

Narrator Wade Watts lives in a new type of trailer park, where trailers and similar units are stacked vertically, “twenty-two mobile homes high” (379).  It’s violent: “[g]unfire wasn’t uncommon” (238).  “There were ofter dangerous and desperate people about – the sort who would rob you, rape you, and then sell your organs on the black market.” (415)  The local public schools “ha[ve] been an underfunded, overcrowded train wreck for decades” (569).

Some people “sign a five-year indenturement contract with some corporation” (538). Wade’s mother didn’t work at necessarily happy jobs: “one as a telemarketer, the other as an escort in an online brothel.” (280)  Some of their neighbors “lucky enough to have a job… worked as day laborers in the giant factory farms” (440); automation doesn’t seem to have happened here.

OASIS is very different.  So far (20% in) it’s largely positive, an attractive alternative to the bad world.  It’s huge (201) and rich, reminding me a bit of this year’s No Man’s Sky.  Wade describes it as an MMO, but it’s really a virtual world.  A variety of locations exist there, from schools to churches (434).   It seems to have licensed a huge amount of content, or the world went open (286).  Its currency trades on the world market (508) (professor Castranova is the first academic to study this).

However, some chunk of OASIS is not fantastic, but simply represents the real world, or an improved/historical version of it.  The high school Wade attends is… a high school (497ff), and avatars are unimaginative by design (508), like uniforms writ large.  Somehow the tech also disciplines students (854).   It also has rich VR, which makes sense, since participants are already in a VR platform.

The software sounds a lot like Second Life, even to the description of first-time users’ clothing (544) and the company making money by selling land (1069).  So far that boom-and-bust project hasn’t been name-checked.  There’s also a bit torrent analog for game players sharing stuff, Guntorrent (players are “gunters”, a contraction of “Easter Egg hunters”) (1097).

The technology is interesting and well developed.  Two pieces connect users to OASIS, a visor (which sounds like goggles) and a glove (for haptic feedback) (286).  It’s a serious VR setup (1045).

There’s also a politics to the technology.  OASIS is open source, has no ads, and doesn’t seem to track users.    Its enemy, IOI and its Sixers, are the opposite (611).

Our hero is poor and desperate.  His home “reeked of cat piss and abject poverty” (242), a trailer holding fifteen people (“It was a double-wide.  Plenty of room for everybody.” (248)).  We first meet him “wedged into the gap between the wall and the dryer” (242), a bit like Harry Potter under the stairs.  OASIS is his escape:

If I was feeling depressed or frustrated about my lot in life, all I had to do was tap the Player One button, and my worries would instantly slip away as my mind focused itself on the relentless pixelated onslaught on the screen in front of me. (255)

[Wade’s mother] used to have to force me to log out every night, because I never wanted to return to the real world.  Because the real world sucked. (342)

Those goggles blot out the world, “blocking out all external light” (482).

Wade also has his own oasis, an abandoned and neglected van (“My Batcave. My Fortress of Solitude” (464), that precious site for every suffering teen.

Wade and his hero Halliday are also serious geeks.  Not only do they have stereotypical obsessions (obscure slices of pop culture, computer games), but we learn that they share a common interpersonal background of awkwardness, shyness, and social unacceptable appearance (556, 957).  The worlds they imagine are from the science fiction and fantasy genres, not from westerns, romance, war, history, or sports.  If we think of the 1980s, when geeks were marginal, if rising, this call-back makes historical an emotional sense.

People are fascinated by this world.  Andy Weir, author of The Martian, wrote Ready Player One fanfiction. Continue reading

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I am profiled by the Connected Learning Alliance

Howard RheingoldThe Connected Learning Alliance published an interview with/profile of me this week.  It was conducted and written by the very great Howard Rheingold.

We discuss open education, mobile, gaming and simulations, the power of small colleges and universities, automation, social media, and more.  I talk about my unusual career trajectory, back to the grad school and teaching days of the 1990s.

It’s also a personal story, with sweet anecdotes about how Howard and I first met.

Let me quote myself, speaking of open education and open access: “What a glorious opportunity, what creativity we can inspire. I think for education, I tell people embrace open. Do it now.”


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This week in the 21st century

Edward Snowden's Twitter photoIt’s one of those 21st century moments.

A history-making whistleblower, who currently speaks to America only through digital video or robots, used Twitter today to explain that the National Security Agency has been hacked.  The target is the Equation Group, a shadowy entity that supposedly hurls malware and hacks at America’s enemies.

Said (alleged) hackers are Russians who named their collective, the Shadow Brokers, after a video game character* and now hold the NSA to ransom unless the agency and/or its friends pays in bitcoin.

The files posted over the weekend include two sets of files. The hackers have made one set available for free. The other remains encrypted and is the subject of an online auction, payable in bitcoin, the cryptocurrency. That set includes, according to the so-called Shadow Brokers, “the best files.” If they receive at least 1 million bitcoin — the equivalent of at least $550 million — they will post more documents and make them available for free.

The Shadow Brokers explain themselves as global insurgents, targeting the rich and powerful elite.  Very 2016:

The group delivered a message to what it called “wealthy elites” and assailed the integrity of elections. “Elites is making laws protect self and friends, lie and fuck other peoples,” they wrote in idiosyncratic English. “Then Elites runs for president. Why run for president when already control country like dictatorship?”

“We want make sure Wealthy Elite recognizes the danger cyber weapons, this message, our auction, poses to their wealth and control. Let us spell out for Elites,” the group added. “Your wealth and control depends on electronic data.”

Some days it just feels like we’re living in the 21st century dreamed up by science fiction.

*From the Mass Effect wiki:

The Shadow Broker is an individual at the head of an expansive organization which trades in information, always selling to the highest bidder. The Shadow Broker appears to be highly competent at its trade: all secrets that are bought and sold never allow one customer of the Broker to gain a significant advantage, forcing the customers to continue trading information to avoid becoming disadvantaged, allowing the Broker to remain in business.

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Two small examples of technologies emerging

Last month I shared two little but interesting examples of new technologies. Today’s I’ll offer another pair.

ITEM #1: some virtual reality gear is rapidly becoming more accessible.  In July my wife and I participated in the fine NYSCIO conference, and several vendors were present.  Most gave away swag, like pens and cell phone holders.  One, Varonis, freely handed out its version of Google Cardboard.

VR cardboard from Varonis

To be clear, this is a virtual reality head-mounted display mount.   It’s free.  We just had to fold it together, stick a decent phone inside, and start ogling in 3d.

Yes, the high-end visors are still expensive.   Yes, producing VR is still a significant challenge for most. But the cardboard option for consuming VR is now at effectively zero cost.  This is one way forward for the medium.

ITEM #2: Here’s a tiny example of automation being used in creativity.

Yesterday I took photos of some flowers on our land after a short rain (they are bee balm; very useful for our gardens).  I posted this one to/via Instagram:

bee balm pre Google

A couple of the black dots just visible are actually bees.

Over night Google asked me if it could do some creative work on it.

How did this happen?  I checked into Google+ (my profile) as I do every day.  Under “Notifications” appeared a “we’ve created a new thing for you” alert.  I clicked it, and found this:
bee balm after Google

G+ seems to have taken my photo, added an old-time photo mount border around it, then filtered parts of the image.

(I’m not sure if it was my Instagram photo or another one taken using my Galaxy’s native phone app.  I haven’t synced phone to laptop of late, but I think the mobile G+ app just sniffs around the phone’s camera folder whenever it’s online.)

On the plus side, this was fun.  I liked seeing what the machines did to my snapshot.  I enjoyed the surprise of this being brought to me, rather than my asking for it.  It makes me want to try filters again

On the downside, I can image Alan Levine barking up a critique.  It’s not that impressive a tweak, nothing as wild as DeepDream.  And maybe it won’t inspire users to do anything; indeed, maybe this machine creativity disables human desires to create.

And yet I could still do things to it.  G+ offered a handy edit option, which gave options new to a photography tyro like myself:

Google + edit box for a photo

Personally, I learn from this.

The larger trend to point to?  As I’ve been saying, computer-aided creativity is now a thing, and it’s likely to grow.  We need think hard, now, about what that could mean.

In sum: two little examples.  Two bits of evidence from a core sample taken from mid-2016, showing digital technologies in development.

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